Speaking of medical detective stories…

Who doesn't love them? Aren't curiosity and a desire to improve the human condition two of the most interesting traits a person can display?

Paul de Kruif's 1926 book, Microbe Hunters, is an  early, influential collection of some great medical detective stories, 12 important successes in the field of microbiology, which were achieved by extraordinary medical detective work.

Microbe Hunters dramatizes the journeys, among others, of  Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the first microbiologist; Sir David Bruce, who traced African sleeping sickness to the tsetse; and Walter Reed, who led the team that discovered that yellow fever is caused by mosquitoes.

Medical historian William Summers was one of many dazzled as a teen-ager by the book, which he says "inspired a generation or more of budding young microbiologists."

Microbe Hunters has sold millions of copies and is still in print, but from a modern perspective, the book is flawed -- De Kruif presents detailed conversations between historical figures, for example.

Even when it was written, the book had its detractors, Summers writes. Ronald Ross, a researcher who won the Nobel Prize in 1902 for identifying the parasite that causes malaria, describing its life cycle and explaining how it comes to infect human beings, successfully sued to prevent publication in the United Kingdom of the chapter about his work.

But De Kruif was one of the most successful medical science writers of his time, and when readers take up a book like Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, about the Ebola virus, they are reading an account profoundly influenced by Microbe Hunters.

The conquest of infectious disease is important to obstetrics.  Infection was the leading cause of maternal mortality until well into the 20th century -- and it still is in many parts of the world.