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Robert Koch: A Life in Medicine and Bacteriology Hardcover – 1999
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First, it is clearly written, extremely well-organized, and easy to follow. Brock knows when to include information and when to leave out details extraneous to his main goal. His chapter organization with subtitles within the chapters makes following the book an easy task. The paragraphs are well-formed with excellent transitions and internal coherence. Given the amount of data to be covered, it is an excellent example of how to organize a biography of a complex and brilliant person.
Second, the book covers all aspects of Koch’s life, from his amazing skills at using the scientific method to isolate bacteria to his arrogance and sometimes dangerous claims later in his life. Koch’s early work is one of the clearest examples of science in action that a reader can find. His “postulates” for identifying disease organisms are now standard procedure in medicine and the clarity of his method is still astounding. He was among the first to use new techniques or materials available (e.g., agar and Petri dishes) and Brock does a terrific job of showing the reader how Koch’s method functioned. Brock is also careful to mention predecessors and people on whose work Koch depended. After Koch became world-renowned, he made the mistake, we might say today, of believing too much in his own image. Spurred in part by the fact that he worked for the German government and partly by his own arrogance, Koch made claims about tuberculin as a cure for tuberculosis that soon proved wrong and sometimes dangerous. While early in his life Koch learned from his mistakes and used them to improve his work, later in his life he found it almost impossible to accept criticism. Brock also covers Koch’s personal life well. After a failed marriage he married a woman thirty years younger and, when he was attacked after the tuberculin scandal, he and his wife began a long series of trips to equatorial countries to do work on tropical diseases. Brock implies that part of the reason for these trips was Koch’s love of travel but a major reason was to get away from the attacks on him in Germany. He maintained a close relationship with his daughter and Brock cites several letters that show a different side of the man. Brock spells out the often vicious debate between Koch and Pasteur, at least part of which was caused by a simple misunderstanding of language elevated into a major dispute by the egos of both men and by the rivalry of the French and the Germans. This book gives you all sides of the man.
If the book has a defect, it is that it was first published over 25 years ago. But I found almost nothing in the book that makes the book “dated.” Brock has given us an informative, very well-written and thoroughly enjoyable biography of one of the founders of modern medicine. I highly recommend it.
A great book about a great man, that in simple language communicates the excitement of a revolutionary time in medicine where a few people in the space of 20 years changed our world forever.
I loved this book and couldn't put it down, and this is in part due to the author communicating his own enthusiasm for his subject. If you are looking for a gift for anyone working in bioscience or biomedicine then you couldn't do better than this book.