BOOK REVIEW / Strange triumph of the chemistry set: 'Tuberculosis: The Greatest Story Never Told' - Frank Ryan: Swift, pounds 15.99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
CLUMSILY written it may be, but this book tells an interesting story; perhaps not the greatest story never told, as the subtitle proclaims, but a story - or several interwoven stories - of success and failure in the scientific struggle to find a cure for tuberculosis.

From the rather endearing (because so flagrant) hype which surrounds it - in addition to the title, Frank Ryan is twice billed on the cover as 'bestselling author' - you might be forgiven for thinking there had never been another book about tuberculosis. There have in fact been several, of course, including some by leading scientists involved in the discovery of a cure, such as the philosophically inclined Rene Dubos and the Nobel prize-winning soil microbiologist Selman Waksman. But, by concentrating on the work of scientists in America and Europe who contributed to the eventual (though apparently not final) 'conquest' of TB, and largely ignoring the rich social and literary history of the disease, Ryan does come up with some new and interesting material. Whether or not he succeeds in making it accessible to 'the ordinary man and woman, regardless of whether they know a jot about medicine or science' is another matter.

Conjecture and chance both play a big part in scientific discovery. As William Feldman, one of those carrying out research into TB who was unlucky not to share Waksman's Nobel prize, put it: 'It would be highly gratifying intellectually to have said that our attack on the problem of chemotherapy for tuberculosis was based on a complicated and astute understanding of the chemistry of the tubercle bacillus. Unfortunately, such was not the case. Instead, our approach was similar to that of countless others: a formula consisting largely of enthusiasm, hope, faith, persistence, and luck. Perhaps the latter (sic) was the most important ingredient.'

Bizarrely, three different teams of workers all, more or less simultaneously, came up with isoniazid - the ultimate 'miracle drug', after streptomycin and PAS (para-aminosalicylic acid). The pharmaceutical companies' potentially unseemly squabble over who had the right to patent it was avoided when it was found that isoniazid had first been synthesised as long ago as 1912 by two Prague chemists who had no idea of, or interest in, its potential as a cure for tuberculosis.

One of the developers of isoniazid, already a Nobel laureate for his earlier work on Prontosil (although the Nazis would not allow him to collect his prize in 1939), was Gerhard Domagk. The fortunate discovery of his diaries in the archives of the Bayer pharmaceutical company gives life and depth to to Ryan's account of Domagk's heroic struggles against adversity during the Second World War.

A sadder story surrounds the success of the other TB Nobel laureate, Selman Waksman, whose most brilliant and favoured student, Albert Schatz, became a bitter enemy when he felt that his admired mentor had deprived him of his just deserts as co-discoverer of streptomycin. Ryan, who acknowledges assistance from both Waksman's son and from Schatz (who is still alive), is so careful not to give offence in telling this story that it is impossible to see where justice lies. But since James D Watson's The Double Helix blew the gaff on the supposedly co-operative nature of scientific research, no one will be surprised by the rivalry underlying this scientific breakthrough. (In an unintentionally comic aside, Ryan writes that scientists are 'vainly human' - presumably he means 'humanly vain'.)

A book which was intended to tell the story of a scientific triumph ends with a dire warning: the 'old enemy' has found a new ally in Aids, and this drug-resistant combination is ravaging the globe - particularly the Third World, but also New York. Depressingly, it looks as though the battle against TB will have to be fought all over again.

Ryan's text could have done with some editing. Apart from the misuse of words like 'sanguine', 'picaresque' and 'burlesque', there are many redundant phrases, such as: '. . . forced himself to re-type the lengthy typescript all over by himself'. A pity, as his story is a worthwhile one.

Comments