Drugs are bad, mmmkay?
August 21, 2009 12:29 AM   Subscribe

Recommend an excellent, comprehensive book on the history of antibiotics?

After burning through Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson's Napoleon's Buttons and Michael Pollard's The Botany of Desire I've decided to seek out books with a similar, historical approach to other interesting molecules.

In particular, I'd love to read a comprehensive history of antibiotics (especially a technical one that's not aimed at lay audiences/bestseller lists like the admittedly still quite good books I mentioned above). I know Thomas Hager's The Demon Under the Microscope is a popular book that chronicles the discovery and history of sulfonamides, but I'm looking for something that covers the whole spectrum of modern antibiotics. Any recommendations would be most appreciated.
posted by inoculatedcities to Science & Nature (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if such a book exists. Really, outside of the discovery of penicillin by Fleming, and the sulfonamide story, I'm not sure that such a narrative exists. The modern antibiotic story is only maybe 70 years old, and I'm not sure that there's a lot of compelling history of, say, the derivation of fluoroquinolones, or the latest generation of cephalosporins.

That said, if you're looking for a technical understanding of how these drugs evolved, look at the antbacterial chapter in Goodman and Gillman's The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics. The older editions (e.g., 2001) are available used for $10. The new edition is too expensive for just a casual read of one chapter, and I bet that in the new editions they've probably sacrificed some of the fascinating history that I remember fondly from the older ones.
posted by scblackman at 3:21 AM on August 21, 2009

inoculatedcities .... Um, eponysterical?
posted by scblackman at 3:22 AM on August 21, 2009

Not exactly what you're looking for but The Coming Plague by former NYT science writer Laurie Garrett is a good narrative more about disease than antibiotics but there is a good bit there. I remember she describes the discovery of the polio vaccine but says that the polio epidemic was ebbing anyway.
posted by mearls at 5:19 AM on August 21, 2009

This is not really answering your question, but there's a wonderful little side story in one of the books of Diane Garbaldon's Outlander series where the heroine, a time-travelling 20th century physician (I know I know), attempts to invent penicillin in 18th century America.
posted by nax at 5:42 AM on August 21, 2009

The Microbe Hunters by Paul De Kruif is a (remarkably engaging and readable) history of bactierology. Toward the end it gets into Paul Ehrlich and the beginning of the search for antibiotics. It's a fun read.
posted by Sublimity at 9:40 AM on August 21, 2009

The book you want is probably Antimicrobial Drugs: Chronicle of a twentieth century medical triumph. However, It's expensive, so you might want to check if a local library (or university library) has a copy.

Searching Google Books for "history of antibiotics" also turns up a few older books that might meet your criteria: Men, molds, and history, by Felix Marti-Ibañez, and Miracle drugs: a history of antibiotics, by Helmuth Maximilian Böttcher. You can probably get cheap copies form somewhere like abebooks.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 2:54 AM on August 22, 2009

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