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Robin Marantz Henig

Fellowship Title:

The Life and Legacy of Paul de Kruif

Robin Marantz Henig
August 29, 2002

Fellowship Year

It was the first day of the 2001 Key West Literary Seminar — an annual event that attracts hundreds of readers and writers to the southernmost town in the United States — and one of the panelists was observing that the whole enterprise of literary seminars seemed pretty weird. “What if someone looked down from another planet and saw what was going on here?” asked Timothy Ferris, a best-selling science writer brought to Key West to hold forth, with a dozen or so others, on “Science and Literature: Narratives of Discovery.” “How would you explain it to him?”

Jacket cover from "The Sweeping Wind," a memoir by Paul De Kruif. Published by Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., New York Jacket Design by Sidney Butchkes ©1962 by Paul de Kruif

As he asked this, Ferris was sitting under a yellow and white striped tent in the courtyard of the Wrecker’s Museum, the oldest house in Key West. 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.

How, indeed, could you explain to a space alien — or even to an earthling with an intelligent but nonliterary turn of mind — why a hodgepodge of 300 supposedly reasonable adults would plunk down $425 each to sit in a chilly auditorium for three solid days while the honey warmth of Florida sunshine beckoned just outside? 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. P. Snow declared in 1956 were irrevocably separate — arts and literature in the first culture, science and technology in the second — seem to be tentatively coming together. To a large extent, we owe this to writers like Ferris, whose lucid books about cosmology — Coming of Age in the Milky Way, The Mind’s Sky, The Whole Shebang — have made an otherwise arcane and ponderous subject seem not only accessible, but necessary. But Ferris and his colleagues at the Key West seminar — Dava Sobel, author of Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter; Jonathan Weiner, author of The Beak of the Finch and Time, Love, Memory; James Gleick, author of Chaos and Genius and Faster; Natalie Angier, author of Woman and a science popularizer through her lively articles in The New York Times — are plying their 21st century trade in a tradition set forth quite firmly in the early years of the 20th century by America’s first great science writer, a man whom few people remember and whose name, Paul de Kruif, fewer can even pronounce.

Pulitzer Prize-winning science author Jonathan Weiner, right, emphasizes a point during a discussion at the 2001 Key West Literary Seminar while other panelists including, left-to-right, biologist Stephen Jay Gould, anthropologist Robin Fox and Murray Gell-Mann, a 1969 Nobel Prize winner in physics, listen. (AP Photo/Andy Newman)

De Kruif (the name rhymes with “life”) wrote one of the most successful pop science books of all time. Published in 1926, 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 1890, Paul de Kruif was trained as a bacteriologist at the University of Michigan, from which he received a Ph.D. in 1916. 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 1920, 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 1922 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. L. 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.

De Kruif’s chapter, the only one in the book to be unsigned, described the state of American medicine, including the deliberate propagation of what he called “medical Ga-Ga-ism.” Nowhere in the medicine that was practiced in the 1920s, de Kruif wrote, could one detect a scientific approach to disease prevention and treatment; it was all a “mélange of religious ritual, more or less accurate folk-lore, and commercial cunning.”

Even though the chapter essentially criticized doctors for not being enough like the scientific men of the Rockefeller, de Kruif’s boss, Simon Flexner, was outraged when he found out who wrote it. This was not the way for a Rockefeller employee to behave, Flexner said. It disturbed the harmony of the institution. He asked for de Kruif’s resignation that very day — September 1, 1922.

De Kruif later wrote that what most infuriated him about this confrontation was Flexner’s insistence that the Rockefeller staff was one big, happy, harmonious family. Even if it were true — which was itself doubtful — it wouldn’t even have been a laudable goal for a research institute, he believed, since contentment is the death knell of any creative endeavor. “All creation, including science, is a war against precedent,” wrote de Kruif. “Science to be vital must grow out of competition between individual brains, foils one to the other, each man mad for his own idea.”

De Kruif was almost happy to be fired. 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 1957. 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 1921 — they leaned out the window calling “Come back, Daddy” — he never set eyes on them again for 24 years.

During the 1920s, 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. Big and broad, six-foot-some with a huge head and smudgy Dutch features, de Kruif was a man’s man, which made him a perfect drinking companion for other robust fellows like H. L. Mencken, Carl Sandburg, and Sinclair Lewis. Lewis, for one, was quite explicit in his admiration for de Kruif’s huge capacity to hold his liquor. “By God, here is the boy who’ll try anything once,” he greeted him the second time they met. “Let’s go to the Gotham for a drink.”

De Kruif also became a lifelong friend of the humorist Clarence Day, who was as frail and refined as de Kruif was big and bawdy. 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.

De Kruif’s first serious assignment was as co-author of Sinclair Lewis’ 1925 novel Arrowsmith, which featured several scientist characters modeled after people in de Kruif’s circle, including his colleagues at the Rockefeller, his mentor at the University of Michigan, and his new wife Rhea. Whole dissertations have been written about who’s who in the novel’s dramatis personae, which features a place called the McGurk Institute that is a thinly veiled rendition of the Rockefeller. It is pretty well accepted that Dr. Max Gottlieb is a hybrid of Frederick Novy and Jacques Loeb, that Leora is modeled after Rhea — and that the book’s protagonist, Martin Arrowsmith, is a cleaned-up, heroic version of Paul de Kruif himself.

“It gives me joy to inform you that de Kruif is perfection,” wrote Lewis to his publishers at Harcourt, Brace. The date was February 13, 1923, the letter was written from somewhere off the coast of Curaçco, and “Red” Lewis had been at sea with de Kruif for nearly six weeks. The two had set out for Barbados shortly after New Year’s to work uninterrupted onboard ship and to get a feel for the island that was to be the model for Arrowsmith’s fictional island of St. Hubert. “He has not only an astonishing grasp of scientific detail,”’ Lewis wrote, “he has a philosophy behind it, and the imagination of a fiction writer…. [H]e loves work — he’s most exuberant when we’re pounding on the book, and when we’re not making plans, when I’m compiling notes into a coherent whole, de Kruif is preparing more data — clear, sound, and just the stuff for dramatic purposes.”

Lewis told his publishers that Arrowsmith (which at the time had the working title The Barbarian) would be his best book, largely because of de Kruif’s contribution: “there’s a question as to whether he won’t have contributed more than I shall have. Yet he takes it for granted that he is not to sign the book with me.”

“Takes it for granted” might have been wishful thinking on Lewis’ part. When he wrote his memoirs nearly 40 years later, de Kruif sounded pained by his lack of credit when Arrowsmith finally appeared in 1925. According to de Kruif, his understanding was that he would receive a byline on the cover along the lines of ‘”by Sinclair Lewis with Paul de Kruif.” At first, Red Lewis had suggested that all royalties, for the book, serial, and movie rights, should be split 50-50, but de Kruif protested the offer as “too generous.” “It’s Red’s name that’s going to bring in the dough,” he said to the publishers. “Okay to make it full collaboration but let’s split the royalties 75 for Red and 25 for me.” This would have gone on being acceptable to de Kruif but for two things: the enormous and unanticipated commercial success of Arrowsmith, and the fact that all he got for his “full collaboration” was a brief word of thanks in the acknowledgements for “technical assistance.” And when Lewis received the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith, and chose to turn it down on the grounds of some sort of principle, de Kruif was forced, in essence, to turn it down too.

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.

The idea for Microbe Hunters had been incubating for years, ever since one of de Kruif’s esteemed colleagues at the Rockefeller, Jules Bordet, came to sit in his lab and chat one afternoon shortly after having been awarded the Nobel Prize. “Your style of scientific writing is pure,” Bordet told him. “‘What you should think to do is a roman des microbes. I can see you feel they are as much roman as science.”

De Kruif took to the idea immediately, but struggled with the particulars. “How could good little Jules Bordet know,” he later wrote in his memoirs, “of the difficulties of this not-yet developed or not-yet discovered style of writing?”

For the few among us today who know the name Paul de Kruif, this is about as far as their knowledge goes: bacteriologist-turned-writer, fired from Rockefeller Institute for something unseemly, co-author of Arrowsmith, author of Microbe Hunters. 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 flirted with communism in the 1930s and 1940s; he became an advisor to President Roosevelt’s March of Dimes campaign against polio; he helped develop a medieval looking “fever machine” to treat syphilis (which at the time was being treated by an even more macabre kind of fever, one generated by deliberately infecting the patient with malaria); he aligned with some fiercely controversial writers to produce, in a struggling little magazine called New Masses, an experiment in large-scale intellectual discourse; he hand-built a cabin in the woods of Michigan where he lived with Rhea and tended his garden; he drank, philandered, and wrote, wrote, wrote a total of 13 books and 200 articles for some of the most popular magazines of his day, including Country Gentleman, Ladies Home Journal and Reader’s Digest.

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. His style of writing has been described as “jazz style,” meaning the facts don’t matter quite as much as the overall sense of the story. Jazz style might have been good enough in de Kruif’s day, but today it’s the subject of rancorous debate among nonfiction writers, especially those who write about science.

©2002 Robin Marantz Henig

Robin Marantz Henig, an author, lecturer and freelance writer specializing in medical, psychological and science policy issues, is documenting the life of science writer Paul de Kruif for her Patterson year. She lives in New York City.

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Robin Marantz Henig