The Story of The Remedy

In 2005, when I was mulling going back to school for my Masters in Public Health, my father sent me a recent copy of the New England Journal of Medicine with a special section on “Medical Detectives.” There were two stories that were especially compelling: the first was a tribute to Berton Roueche, a wonderful writer for the New Yorker in the 1950s and 1960s, who specialized in ride-alongs with the New York City Department of Health epidemiology squad. His stories read like a sort of tweedy version of CSI, and the collections, especially 11 Blue Men, were favorites in the Goetz household.

The other story in that issue of NEJM concerned an odd coincidence between Robert Koch, an eminent 19th century bacteriologist, and Arthur Conan Doyle, during his medical days. Again, this story resonated with me, because the Sherlock Holmes stories were a favorite in our family, especially beloved by my sister Cecilia. In a brief one-and-a-half pages, the NEJM piece described an episode where these two giants of history, Koch and Conan Doyle, collided. In 1890, Koch claimed to have a remedy for tuberculosis, and announced a demonstration that Conan Doyle, then an anonymous local doctor in England, rashly decided to attend.

That demonstration would turn out to be a pivotal episode in both men’s life (And, it would turn out, in mine). Conan Doyle found himself playing detective and investigating whether Koch’s remedy could, in fact, cure tuberculosis. The effort convinced Conan Doyle to give up his medical practice and turn to his writing with conviction - particularly to some stories involving an odd sort of detective named Sherlock Holmes. Robert Koch, meanwhile, would find that the scent of a remedy would tempt him away from his core values, particularly the meticulously rigorous scientific protocol he was famous for. Instead, he rushed headlong towards the fame and fortune that seemed his destiny. He would be proven sadly wrong.

For me, this short essay suggested a larger story. "This would be a great book," I remember thinking. I couldn't believe nobody had written it yet. As it turned out, it would take me nearly a decade to actually bring it to life. At last, today - April 3 - the full story is now out. It is my second book, The Remedy, and I am truly proud of it, and excited to see what the world makes of it. My father, himself a doctor, was I think very proud that I had taken that article and had designs to turn it into something greater. In 2011, when I signed with Gotham Books to write the book, he was thrilled. I was glad to have shared the book proposal with him before I sent it off. Alas, he is not here to see the book actually appear, having died in 2012 at the age of 90. I’m very glad that he knew it was on the way.

And my sister Cecilia would’ve surely been proud of her little brother. She died in 1998 in Uganda, while working on a global health project. Her work in public health inspired me to play hooky from my day job for a couple years to earn my own credentials in the field. I’m so very sad that she, too, isn’t here to share the joy of The Remedy with me. The Remedy is dedicated to both my father and my sister, because the book would not exist if not for both of them. All of which is to say that The Remedy is for me a very personal book, one that ties together my youth, spent reading medical detective stories in both fact and fiction, and my academic efforts, which began with a degree in literature and ended with that MPH, as well as my professional career, in which I have endeavored to explain complicated ideas and to discern the true patterns of innovation.

The Remedy is the sum of those elements. But mostly, I hope, it’s a book that will appeal to a great many people simply because it is a captivating story about a fascinating time and complicated individuals. It is a story about how contemporary science came to be, and how modern medicine is very much still a work in progress. And it tells a tale about the past that helps us understand our present. Most of all, though, it is the sort of book that I myself would like to read.


Thomas Goetz8 Comments