A “bug hunter’s” opinion

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.’

Hans Zinsser's 1926 letter to Paul De Kruif

Hans Zinsser’s 1926 letter to Paul De Kruif

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.


4 thoughts on “A “bug hunter’s” opinion

  1. But is Zinsser’s work on rats still widely approved? I don’t recall much about it, having read it decades ago, but I don’t remember being impressed, and it doesn’t appear in the kind of footnotes that I read.

    • To modern eyes Zinsser’s writing style is dated and overblown but RLH still stands up pretty well as a natural history of typhus, especially if you concentrate on the last three chapters where he summarizes his investigations into the biology of the disease and the epidemiology of man-louse and rat-flea-man interactions. And it certainly deserves to be on any reading list of the historiography of disease. Indeed, you could argue that RLH inspired a whole new ecologial genre from Mc Neill’s Plague and Peoples to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel

  2. Hi Mark, I am a Dutch microbiologist, turned medical historian after retirement, and writing a biography of Paul de Kruif. I know the letter you showed, from the Holland Michigan Archive. As you may know from RLH, Zinsser also critisized “Arrowsmith”, the book by Sinclair Lewis, who had PdK as his assistant in writing. “If an epidemiologist of a plague study talked and behaved in the manner of the hero of Arrowsmith, he would not only be useless, but he would be regarded as something of a yellow ass and a nuisance by his associates.” But that critisism came a decade after Arrowsmith, and the remaks about the procedure of the hero (invented by PdK) failed to occur then. Understandably, PdK politely declined the request to review RLH.
    My book on PdK, “A Constant State of Emergency” will be published by Eerdmans Grand Rapids, hopefully end of this year. Jan Peter

    • How interesting to hear that you are writing a biography of De Kruif. As you know his book Microbe Hunters was an inspiration to a generation of microbiologists. Indeed, I have lost count of the number of times someone has told me I should write his biography. Thankfully, now I don’t have to! I came across the letter in the Countway Library, not HMA. I also recently found an interesting cache of correspondence relating to PdK at the Rockefeller Archives, including a guide to the principal characters in Arrowsmith and their real life models. I am currently researching the life and career of Karl Friedrich Meyer, who was supposedly the model for Sondelius, but according to De Kruif’s document this was not the case – his plague hunter was an amalgam (De Kruif and Meyer were good friends, though Meyer disapproved of his drinking, but perhaps you know this). Here’s a link to an article I wrote on Meyer and De Kruif in the Lancet. Please send me your book when its finished: I’d be interested to read it and maybe review it.



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