Paul de Kruif wrote this book, which was first published in 1926 by Harcourt, Brace and Co. In an extremely enthusiastic and optimistic style which is an easy joy to read, de Kruif describes in some detail the history of the first famous "microbe hunters" who discovered the microscopic life forms responsible for much human and animal disease as well as the men who worked to end the suffering they caused.
Included in this volume are the stories of many searchers who advanced medicine and the science of microbiology. Starting from appalling ignorance and superstition in the seventeenth century when learned people knew nothing of any microbe too small to be seen by the unaided eye, the author tells us how, by small steps, with long pauses, and with many mistakes, a few scientists slowly became the pioneers of a new world. During the biographies, the microscope becomes a familiar scientific tool, the germ theory of disease takes hold while spontaneous generation is discarded, and all the basic techniques of twentieth century microbiology are developed. Science was still in darkness about the methods of meaningful experimentation, which caused many scientists to make false conclusions and fail to prove their points. The author puts words in his characters' mouths and makes them come alive with fears, desires, and emotions both honorable and low. He describes the experiments on thousands of rats, birds, guinea pigs, sheep, horses, dogs, and other animals, making the point that most of these creatures died so that humans could live. The most poignant thing about this book is that it was written in 1926 and, therefore, readers of today should realize how much has been discovered in the short time since. In 1926, there were still no cures for most human diseases; there was no penicillin, no antibiotics of any kind; quack doctors and patent medicines abounded and people seemed to live or die regardless of any treatment; viruses were still largely (if not totally) unknown.
The scientists covered in Microbe Hunters are:
Antony Leeuwenhoek: an uneducated Dutchman who ground his own microscope lenses and wrote letters to the Royal Society describing the tiny animals he found everywhere around him.
Lazzaro Spallanzani: an Italian who proved that bacteria are born from other bacteria and are not spontaneously generated.
Louis Pasteur: the French hero who was the first to believe microorganisms might be the cause of disease, and also proved that yeast is necessary for the fermentation of wine and beer, and then worked to identify the microbial causes for silkworm disease, anthrax (getting into a battle with Robert Koch over it) and rabies.
Robert Koch: a German country doctor who picked up the microscope as a hobby and went on to identify the cause of anthrax and also found a way to culture pure colonies of bacteria, following that by chasing down the agent of tuberculosis and finding a way to stain microbes to make them more visible, then discovering the cause of cholera.
Émile Roux and Emil Behring: who identified the first diphtheria antitoxin.
Élie Metchnikoff: the Russian Jew who conceived the theory that cells in the blood, called phagocytes, attack and kill invading microbes.
Theobald Smith: who discovered that ticks from infected cows could spread Texas cattle fever to uninfected cows--the first time an insect disease vector had been proved.
David Bruce: while working for the British Army Medical Service in Africa, solved the mystery of nagana and sleeping sickness by proving that the diseases were carried by tsetse flies.
Ronald Ross: the doctor who uncovered the facts about malaria in India with prodding from his mentor back home in England, Patrick Manson.
Giovanni Battista Grassi: an Italian who identified the single species of mosquito that transmits malaria and showed how to prevent the disease.
Walter Reed: who used human volunteers to track down and prove the cause of yellow fever in Cuba.
The book has been republished (often with new forewords, commentaries, or other extras) several times since 1926, and deserves to be read by anyone interested in science, history, or society.