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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Errata to Fortuitous Coincidences

Demon Under the Microscope

Last month, a commenter at this blog’s blogfather, AdvoAdvo, if you read this, please drop me a line so that I can thank you directly., recommended Thomas Hager’s The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug (2006) (Demon). This book offers an interesting, well-written popular account of the discovery of the first widely effective class of antibiotics, the sulfa drugs, and its discoverer, Gerhard Domagk. That account covers some of the same events recounted in this blog last year. While these accounts largely agree where they overlap, there are some discrepancies which deserve pointing out and at least an attempt at resolution.

The context to this post is provided by last year’s post, Fortuitous Coincidences (Fortuitous Coincidences), of which the reader seeking to make sense of the following might want to refresh their memory.

  1. Fortuitous Coincidences states that Domagk collected the [Nobel] Prize money after the war. That is incorrect. As Demon (p. 286-294) makes clear, after the war, Domagk was formally awarded the Prize and received the Medal, but the Prize money was forfeited according to the rules of the Nobel Prize committee.

  2. Fortuitous Coincidences states that Domagk told the commandant of the prison that he was imprisoned for winning the Nobel Prize. Demon (p. 251) recounts the same anecdote but has Domagk saying this to a fellow prisoner, not the commandant. Also the response was the gesture for insanity of tapping the head, not the similar gesture of same meaning of spinning the finger next to the temple.

  3. Perhaps the most puzzling claim in Fortuitous Coincidences was that F requested and received Sulfa from Domagk to save F’s 2-year old sick daughter. But this makes little sense because this cannot have occurred earlier than April 1937, when a medical doctor in Sweden would already have had ready access to Sulfa without troubling its discoverer.

    Probably the best resolution of this discrepancy between Demon and Fortuitous Coincidences is to assume that F had already tried Sulfa, but that when that failed, requested that Domagk send him one of the more powerful variants of Sulfa that F knew he was working on. This detail may have been omitted in the narrative offered to the author when he was a child or the author may have forgotten it in the intervening decades.

  4. Finally, Domagk presumably sent any sulfa variant he may have from his laboratory at Wuppertal, not from Berlin.

I apologize for misleading my readers on these points and beg them to accept that the root of this error was not an intent to deceive, but the frailty of history transmitted orally at least once and stored in human memory for eighty years. While I believe that the account in Fortuitous Coincidences is still largely correct (and confirmed in large part by Demon), any discrepancy between such an account and the document-based work of a professional historian must be resolved in favor of the latter.