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microbe hunters

            This classic is the first popular science book I can remember reading as a child, so I have a special nostalgic feeling for it. Microbe Hunters recounts, in an alarmingly bubbly tone replete with exclamation marks, the exploits of the early microbiologists: Leeuwenhoek, Pasteur, Koch, Reed, and others. The author, a longtime bacteriologist at the University of Michigan, manages a view of these great small-game hunters that is both hero-worshipful of their achievements and unabashedly gleeful about their human foibles. Here, for instance, is his take on Leeuwenhoek's early life as an apprentice draper: "Think of a present-day scientist getting his training for experiment among bolts of gingham, listening to the tinkle of the bell on the cash drawer, being polite to an eternal succession of Dutch housewives who shopped with a penny-pinching dreadful exhaustiveness -- but that was Leeuwenhoek's university, for six years!" .
             De Kruif never shies away from detailing the egotism, hypocrisy, vanity, contentiousness, religious mania, and other character flaws of the microbe hunters -- which effectively makes the point that science, like many other forms of modern human achievement, may be as much the product of neurosis as of joy. He shows that some of his heroes were slovenly while others were methodical, some were singlemindedly devoted to a particular problem while others had fleeting attention spans, some were ruthlessly ambitious while others were tortured by their own tender consciences. It is this two-sided pleasure in the human side of science that accounts for the continuing appeal of the book, and its ability to be enjoyed on different levels by adolescents as well as adults. .
             The book was written in 1926 and some of its stylistic points are quite dated. The most obvious are the "infelicities" (as the current publisher primly puts it) caused by reference to ethnicity. There have also been shifts in vocabulary; and de Kruif's courtly attempts to recognize the wives of the scientists for their loving supportiveness and good clerical skills would probably not go over big at the next AWIS meeting either.

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