From The New England Journal of Medicine
Theobald Smith is best remembered today for the discovery in the 1880s, with Daniel E. Salmon, of the organisms that cause Texas cattle fever and hog cholera. As this lucidly written biography argues, there was a good deal more to Smith than that: he was the leading North American microbiologist of his era. He was a patient, tenacious laboratory researcher whose experiments were meticulously planned. He made a number of important discoveries, notably the transmission of malaria by mosquitoes and the pathogenic nature of bovine tuberculosis in humans, that were later independently established and credited to others in the historical record. Dolman and Wolfe suggest that Smith's "characteristic failure to carry his laboratory findings into clinical practice" may have cost him wider renown but admit that Smith both sought and shunned publicity. Perhaps it was also that the findings of American researchers, who were far away from Europe, where the most dynamic work in microbiology was being performed during this period, could conveniently be ignored. (Figure) Dolman and Wolfe's biography is not hagiographic in the obvious sense of many previous biographies, but their continual quiet insistence on Smith's perfections as a scientist and their attention to the shortcomings of such eminent Smith contemporaries as Robert Koch, Ronald Ross, and Paul Ehrlich, while fully justified -- they were all flawed men -- do make the reader increasingly uneasy. Although this undoubtedly will become the standard biography of Smith, there is room for further assessment of his work in its international context and in relation to intellectual climates and cultures of medical research in the early period of modern microbiology. This is a book to be read at leisure. The authors had access to an enormous archival trove and made full use of it. The details of Smith's life from his idyllic boyhood in Albany, New York, through his career at the Bureau of Animal Industry, at Harvard, and at Princeton, to his journeys in Europe and death in New York Hospital are scrupulously detailed. The density of his life is reflected in the attention given, for example, to minor illness, dinners with colleagues, lectures delivered, and medals and diplomas received. There are lavish accounts of the writings and ideas of contemporaries such as Koch and Ehrlich, as well as of Smith's American coevals. Smith was a mostly equable man, with a comfortable family life and many friends. Yet despite Dolman and Wolfe's evident partiality, the reader may find it difficult to engage with Smith himself. Did the life of the mind in the laboratory instill a certain detachment in his personality? By contrast, William Osler's charm and humanity leap from every page of Michael Bliss's biography (William Osler: A Life in Medicine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) and testify to his skills as a clinician. Extensive quotations from Smith's diaries and letters capture no similar warmth of spirit. The insistent discipline of science, the analytic mind of the successful experimenter, the constant underlying tension between the life of the laboratory and the world of competition, publicity, and priority in research -- these were the forces that shaped Smith's life, honed his character, and provide the structure and interest in this biography. Anne Hardy, D.Phil.
Copyright © 2004 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.
This dedication to microbiologist Smith provides a detailed account of a lifelong passion for using science to alleviate human suffering. Dolman and Wolfe meticulously investigate factors in Smith's upbringing that led him to studying medicine...The authors recount Smith's associations with notable scientists who led him to pursue medical studies emphasizing pathology. The list of colleagues who influenced Smith's research reads like a who's who of microbiology. Smith's collaborations include other famous microbiologists who investigated infectious bacterial diseases of animal and humans. Each chapter presents Smith's research according to the chronology of his life and concurrent developments in medicine and microbiology, and discusses his contributions to controlling tragic livestock diseases such as cattle fever, hog cholera, and swine plague. (B. R. Shmaefsky Choice 2004-03-01)