Because of his service in the Sanitary Corps, he had occasional contacts with leading French biologists of the period. He then became a full-time writer. De Kruif assisted Sinclair Lewis with his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Arrowsmith by providing the scientific and medical information required by the plot, along with character sketches. Many believe the characters in the novel represent people known to De Kruif, with Martin Arrowsmith a physician, unlike de Kruif possibly representing himself. While working for the Rockefeller Institute, De Kruif submitted an anonymous entry about modern medicine, for a book entitled Civilization.
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He was at a huge round table, one of at least 30 scattered across the lawn, eating from a plate he had loaded with ordinary but filling buffet food — seafood lasagna, roast beef, salad, that kind of thing — and drinking scotch from the open bar.
The moon was nearly full and its edges rough-hewn, as though someone had been slicing into a piece of tissue paper with a boy scout knife. He waved his arm vaguely at the hundreds of conference registrants sitting at the other round tables, also eating and drinking and murmuring in the soft sub-tropical air.
Why would these folks come all the way to Key West, a city as famous for all night partying as New Orleans, to wake up early each morning to listen to debates about how best to communicate scientific issues to the general public? Maybe the explanation lies in the importance of the topic itself. In the 21st century, the two cultures that C.
Snow declared in were irrevocably separate — arts and literature in the first culture, science and technology in the second — seem to be tentatively coming together. De Kruif the name rhymes with "life" wrote one of the most successful pop science books of all time. Published in , Microbe Hunters has been translated into 18 languages, was spun into two Hollywood movies and a Broadway play, inspired an entire generation of biological scientists to pursue research careers, and is still in print and selling briskly as it passes the 75th anniversary of its publication.
Its author was a larger-than-life biologist who, to support the family he abandoned to marry a young woman he met in his lab, turned to magazine and book writing as easy income.
He started writing for the extra money, and stayed with it for the thrill, glamour, good hard-drinking companions, and no small measure of fame. Born in , Paul de Kruif was trained as a bacteriologist at the University of Michigan, from which he received a Ph. Immediately after that, he went to war as a first lieutenant, stationed in France with the Sanitary Corps and responsible for investigating the cause and possible prevention of gas gangrene, which was endemic in the trenches.
After the war, by now a captain and the father of two, he returned to Michigan to work in the laboratory of the esteemed bacteriologist Frederick Novy. With a publication about streptococci and a phenomenon called complement activation, de Kruif caught the eye of scientists at the Rockefeller Institute, the leading biomedical research facility of its day.
He moved to Rockefeller in , assigned to do work that would elucidate the mechanism of respiratory infection. De Kruif lasted at Rockefeller for only two years. He was fired in September for his anonymous contribution to a book called Civilization, which the venerable Harold Stearns compiled to cover every learned topic he thought the well-informed masses should know.
The book included chapters by Lewis Mumford, H. Mencken, Ring Lardner, and 30 others. De Kruif was a total newcomer in this crowd — but it was his contribution that created the biggest stir. This was not the way for a Rockefeller employee to behave, Flexner said. It disturbed the harmony of the institution. To his mind, if he switched to writing full time he would finally get rich — and he needed money badly because he wanted to marry Rhea Barbarin, the young woman he had fallen madly in love with back in Michigan.
To marry Rhea, though, he first had to divorce his wife Mary, a college professor and the mother of their two young sons. That meant living in Reno for six months, hoping that Mary did not contest the divorce, and being willing to agree to a lifetime of paying alimony and child support — all of which would cost money. De Kruif did finally marry Rhea, living with her happily for 35 years, with only a few sexual indiscretions he put down to his own unstoppable "turbulence," until she died of a sudden attack of thrombophlebitis in And he was good about sending regular alimony payments to Mary.
But he was, by his own admission, a failure as a father. After he walked out on his children in — they leaned out the window calling "Come back, Daddy" — he never set eyes on them again for 24 years. During the s, de Kruif insinuated himself into the national literary scene, the first science writer ever to do so. He wrote bold letters introducing himself to the most famous authors of the day, and some of them wrote back and eventually befriended him.
Mencken, Carl Sandburg, and Sinclair Lewis. On one memorable evening in New York, de Kruif created something of a spectacle by carrying his friend down the aisle of a Broadway theatre to his seat for "The Merry Widow," because Day was so badly crippled by rheumatoid arthritis that he could not get there on his own. It is pretty well accepted that Dr. Yet he takes it for granted that he is not to sign the book with me.
When he wrote his memoirs nearly 40 years later, de Kruif sounded pained by his lack of credit when Arrowsmith finally appeared in After that sometimes prickly collaboration, de Kruif applied his lessons about novelistic technique to his first, best, and most successful book, Microbe Hunters. He told the stories of 14 pathbreaking scientists, from Leeuwenhoek to Pasteur to Walter Reed, in a style that was breathless in its admiration and at the same time pitiless in its unmasking of these heroes as neither more nor less than complicated and flawed human beings.
I can see you feel they are as much roman as science. But the man lived another 45 years after his first book was published, and his life, like his body and his bearing, was large. He saw his work turned into feature films, first Arrowsmith, and later two chapters of Microbe Hunters became award-winning Hollywood movies. The film based on the chapter about yellow fever, called "Yellow Jack," had first been a successful Broadway play, co-authored by de Kruif and the famous American dramatist Sidney Howard, whose film credits included the adaptations of both Arrowsmith and Gone with the Wind.
The film based on the chapter about Paul Ehrlich, who discovered a "magic bullet" against syphilis, came out during World War II, and the fact that its protagonist played by Edward G. Robinson was German did not seem to hurt ticket sales. Even though contemporary science writers tread a path essentially forged by de Kruif, we tend to look at much of his work as overdone — too dramatic, too polemic, and, most damning of all, too much of it made up.
He was at a huge round table, one of at least 30 scattered across the lawn, eating from a plate he had loaded with ordinary but filling buffet food — seafood lasagna, roast beef, salad, that kind of thing — and drinking scotch from the open bar. The moon was nearly full and its edges rough-hewn, as though someone had been slicing into a piece of tissue paper with a boy scout knife. He waved his arm vaguely at the hundreds of conference registrants sitting at the other round tables, also eating and drinking and murmuring in the soft sub-tropical air. Why would these folks come all the way to Key West, a city as famous for all night partying as New Orleans, to wake up early each morning to listen to debates about how best to communicate scientific issues to the general public?
Microbe Hunters – Paperback – October 28, 2002
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