Archival research can be tedious at the best of times but every now and again Panacea smiles on our labours and presents us with a gift from the medical gods. How else to explain this wonderfully acerbic 1926 letter from Hans Zinsser that I found recently at the Countway Library in Boston. Addressed to the science writer Paul De Kruif, who Zinsser had known for many years, the letter takes joshing to another level and gives new meaning to the phrase, ‘damning with feint praise’.
Zinsser, then professor of bacteriology and immunology at Harvard, was moved to write the letter after being asked to review De Kruif’s book, Microbe Hunters, for the Saturday Review of Literature. A few years earlier De Kruif, then a lab assistant at the Rockefeller Institute, had ruffled feathers by publishing Our Medicine Men, an ill-considered account of the American medical profession, and Zinsser wasn’t about to let his friend forget it.
‘Enclosed is a short review of your opus which I am sending to-day to the Saturday Review of Literature,’ writes Zinsser. ‘I think you will be very much irritated that I dig up the past as I do.’
Zinsser begins his review of Microbe Hunters by reminding De Kruif of his previous ‘crude and bilious performance’ in Our Medicine Men, a book in which he hung out ‘all the medical dirty linen’. However, rather than heaping further ordure on De Kruif, it is apparent that Zinsser considers his latest book on the ‘heroic’ careers of microbiologists like Pasteur, Ehrlich, Ross and Reed a triumph.
In Microbe Hunters, Zinsser writes, De Kruif harnesses all his bacteriological expertise to the ‘admiration of men and deeds that constitute a chapter of scientific history thrilling and romantic as any conquest of scientific history of voyage of discovery.’
The adventurousness of scientific work which these biographical chapters reveal, and which is often lost in the dry impersonal accounts usually accessible, may explain to many lay readers why there exist – and will always exist – a small and peculiar group in the population who will take a job at two or three thousand an year when they might be in the hardware business and drive a Cadillac.
In his letter Zinsser amplifies his praise – kind of:
Much that I didn’t entirely like in the first part of the book disappears towards the end, and I take true pleasure in what I believe to be a rapid and distinct growth in your talent. I don’t mind saying that from your first book I didn’t believe you were going to get very far with writing, but this book makes me feel you will – not that the opinion of a bug hunter is of any literary critical value.
Zinsser is too humble by far. His assessment of Microbe Hunters was spot on and within weeks De Kruif’s publisher had ordered a second printing. No doubt there was an element of literary jealousy here as though in 1926 Zinsser was well known as a writer of medical textbooks he also wrote poetry on the side and made no secret of his desire to reach a wider audience. Perhaps that explains why Zinsser cannot resist ending his letter to De Kruif with one more barb:
I am very much wondering what your next theme will be. I do think it makes a big difference early in the game whether one writes about things that have become a part of ones tissues instead of purely foreign material in the process of digestion.
Ouch! What Zinsser doesn’t say is that in 1926 he was already digesting the material for Rats, Lice and History, his own magnum opus. Published in 1935, Zinsser’s biography of the lowly louse was to prove even more popular than Microbe Hunters. Indeed, Rats, Lice and History has never been out of print.
Without De Kruif’s example to spur him on, however, one wonders whether Zinsser may have ever found the courage to attempt the genre.