Invincible Microbe by Jim Murphy

Cindy: When Lynn and I read and posted about Martha Brooks’ Queen of Hearts a year ago, little did we know that this story set in a tuberculosis sanitorium would be the first of many TB books that would come our way this year. There was The Humming Room by Ellen Potter where a young girl goes to live at her uncle’s house that once served as a tuberculosis sanitorium on Cough Rock Island. And debut author Marsha Hayles adds Breathing Room set in a Minnesota fictional sanitorium and illustrated with photos and documents of the time.

But, being the disease geeks that we are, we were really excited when we got our hands on Jim Murphy’s informational book about the disease. Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure (Houghton 2012) provides a lot of details about the history, symptoms, and treatment that supplement the fictional stories.

It’s no wonder that early sufferers knew not what afflicted them. It takes 25,000 M. tuberculosis micro-organisms laid end to end to measure one inch. But today paleontologists have tracked the disease back to victims five hundred thousand years ago in Turkey. Murphy connects the spread of the disease to scientific and cultural changes like James Watts’ steam engine that sent thousands to live in cramped quarters in urban areas giving a stronger footing to this disease that doctors at the time did not know was an airborne spreading contagious disease. The estimate is that, “by 1850 between 75 and 90 percent of all people on earth had the TB germ in them, and that 20 percent of these people developed active cases of the disease.”

Much of Murphy’s book focuses on the attempts by scientists (some more successful and more conscientious than others) to understand the disease and to seek a cure. The various treatments given over the years are often as horrible as the symptoms of the disease (including death). Life in TB sanitorium was no picnic, although lots of fresh air was involved….usually very cold winter fresh air where patients were left on porches in their beds under quilts to sleep the night in the open. I’ll leave it to Lynn to give you the good news…and the bad news…about the developments that led to the end of sanitorium care. But I will add that last fall I took Lynn on a tour around the perimeter of Kalamazoo, Michigan’s own closed sanitorium. Oh, the things that librarians do for FUN!

Lynn:  As Cindy says it took centuries for humans to understand the cause of what afflicted so much of the world’s population and even when Robert Koch announced his carefully researched findings of the bacteria in 1882 to the Berlin Physiological Society, it was virtually ignored.  The new germ theory was resisted by physicians and the public alike but aided in this country especially by the aggressive efforts of Herman Briggs, a public health pioneer, attention shifted to ways of combating the actual bacteria even as sanitoriums and the “curing industry” became big business.  Murphy and Blank’s chronological biography of this infinitely adaptive microorganism takes an eye-opening detour to examine the shameful treatment of minority and poor patients in this country – and points out parallels that exist in today’s public health policies – something that could lead to some spirited classroom discussion.

In the final section of the book, the authors describes the astonishing and LUCKY events that led to the discovery of the first treatment that actually killed the TB bacteria – streptomycin – a substance derived from a ground mold.  It seemed like a miracle and within a few short years, most assumed that TB was finished.  Sanitoriums closed, additional drugs were developed and research moved on to other diseases.  But TB was not and IS not finished and the story of its comeback and the threat posed to public health is the cautionary close to the book’s fascinating and timely story.

This slim little book – just over 100 pages – offers so much.  Fascinating for a curious individual reader, it is also a treasure chest for curriculum integration with more Common Core connections than we can possibly list.  It is accessible for middle schoolers yet written with enough depth to generate lengthy discussion in high school classes as well.  The source material is outstanding and I especially appreciate the annotated bibliography and annotated source notes and found them both of great interest and value.  My to-read list is burgeoning!  This is a MUST for school and public library collections.

Common Core Connections

RI.7.3. Analyze the interactions between individuals, events, and ideas in a text (e.g., how ideas influence individuals or events, or how individuals influence ideas or events).

Even after Robert Koch’s groundbreaking discovery of M. tuberculosis in 1882, the world largely ignored the discovery.  Why was that?  Analyze the various elements that were the cause and discuss what led to changes in thinking.  Are there similar important scientific discoveries that were also ignored?  Are there scientific controversies today that a future world may look at in the same way we regard Koch’s discovery?

RI.8.1. Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

In Chapter 7 Outsiders, the authors say, “The poor and members of minority groups were literally outsiders when it came to adequate medical care.”  Cite the evidence that supports this.  Can you think of parallels in today’s health care treatment?  Cite your sources that support your conclusions.

For more Nonfiction Monday books visit Books Together.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

2 Comments on "Invincible Microbe by Jim Murphy"

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  1.' Jessica says:

    not really relevant to this subject, but I got a spam DM from your Twitter handle that leads to a fake Twitter site prompting login. You should check it out.

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