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'Remedy' explains how quest to cure tuberculosis led to creation of Sherlock Holmes

| Saturday, April 26, 2014, 6:12 p.m.

Germs and detectives might not seem like they're connected. But their link, as a certain fictitious sleuth might say, is elementary.

In Thomas Goetz's fascinating and entertaining new page-turner of a book, “The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis,” we are transported to the final decades of the 19th century. The age of electricity was dawning. And in laboratories and on imaginary London streets, men armed with microscopes and the power of observation first used science to tackle the twin scourges of crime and disease.

“The Remedy” is a true tale about how deductive reasoning and the scientific method first captured the public imagination — thanks in no small measure to the work of two country doctors.

Before Conan Doyle got rich with Sherlock Holmes' story, he was a small-town English physician with dreams of becoming a famous writer. And before Koch discovered the cause of tuberculosis, he was a provincial German physician with the dream of becoming a famous scientist. Both practiced a profession in which “bad air” was believed to cause diseases and in which blood-letting devices were commonly used.

“Practically speaking, medicine in the 1880s didn't work that well, and routine practices tended to have the opposite of their intended effect,” Goetz writes.

Relegated to a small practice in a rural corner of Prussia, Koch began a small-scale, but systematic, study of a scourge of his community: anthrax, a serial killer of sheep and cattle — and sometimes humans.

The “germ theory” of disease was not then widely accepted. With a microscope provided by his wife and with farm animals as his first test subjects, followed by legions of white mice (Koch pioneered their use in laboratories), Koch not only found the anthrax bacterium in his microscope, he discovered its entire life cycle. Then, with a series of simple but bold experiments, he sought to prove conclusively that it caused the disease.

Only a small number of scientists embraced “germ theory.” Making germs part of medical conventional wisdom required a “radical” shift in scientific thinking, Goetz writes. The German doctor wanted “(n)ot just to prove the existence of one disease, but to change the conception of all disease.”

Goetz, former executive editor of “Wired” and author of “The Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in the New Era of Personalized Medicine,” employs great flair and an unfailing sense of drama as he describes Koch's lonely mission and the highly competitive intellectual milieu of late 19th-century science. After he outlines his findings in a series of letters to a respected university, Koch not only wins a prestigious academic appointment, he becomes a celebrity.

But his newfound fame is quickly upstaged by a Frenchman. Louis Pasteur is not only a more practical scientist (he always has an eye to the commercial potential of his work), he is also a better showman. Pasteur creates and tests the world's first anthrax vaccine in a dramatic public demonstration.

Goetz's profile of the personality clash between the men is especially rich and convincing. Koch, Goetz writes, “came out swinging.” Koch seeks to criticize Pasteur's work and then to outdo him. First, he discovers the cause of tuberculosis, itself a momentous achievement. Then, Koch tries to one-up himself by attempting to find a cure for the disease.

Koch allows the discovery-obsessed media to leak out word that he's discovered a “remedy.” He calls his mysterious new substance tuberculin. Legions of tuberculosis patients launch a “zombie pilgrimage” to Berlin, Goetz writes. They are followed by a doctor who's recently launched a writing career.

Conan Doyle travels to Berlin in 1890 as a correspondent for a London newspaper. By then, he had written a couple of novels and some short stories. He never gets to meet Koch, but in visiting his patients, Conan Doyle quickly concludes that the “remedy” is no such thing. Koch has addressed the symptoms of the disease, Conan Doyle asserts, without attacking the disease itself.

“It is as if a man whose house was infested with rats were to remove the marks of the creatures every morning and expect in that way to get rid of them,” Conan Doyle wrote.

Conan Doyle returns to England a changed man, newly confident in his abilities as both a writer and an observer. From that confidence, Sherlock Holmes is born.

Holmes, named after Conan Doyle's physician-philosopher hero Oliver Wendell Holmes, demonstrates again and again that crime is no match for science. The detective's gifts for observation and deductive reasoning are drawn from a legendary Scottish physician and teacher of Conan Doyle's, Joseph Bell.

“I thought I would try my hand at writing a story where the hero would treat crime as Dr. Bell treated disease,” Conan Doyle later wrote. As a result, Sherlock Holmes “had a singular personality and appeal, and a wholly modern approach to his task of criminal detection,” Goetz explains.

If Koch was one of the first science celebrities, Conan Doyle became one of the first multiplatform media superstars, with his fictional Holmes coming to life first in magazine stories, then in books and finally in theater, silent movies and “talking pictures” — all during Conan Doyle's lifetime.

Goetz follows both men deep into their careers and celebrity, with Koch eventually awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine he so clearly deserved. But Conan Doyle's life has a tragic twist, involving the very disease Koch had been unable to cure.

In the end, “The Remedy” is a thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating journey through several decades of European history and an intimate portrait of two once-obscure doctors who shaped it. It's a book that illustrates how the imagination and the intellect can work in concert to cure a disease, or to delight an audience of millions.

Hector Tobar is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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