Q: Your new book, The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis, reads like a thriller–charting the race for a TB cure that was often driven by what you call “the pursuit of scientific glory.” How fundamental are big egos to progress in science and medicine? Is the great competitiveness always a benefit?
A: Competition is an essential part of scientific discovery — but so is collaboration. The two giants of the germ theory, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, were intense rivals, and even as they pursued transformative microbial investigations — identifying the causes of anthrax, tuberculosis, typhoid, strep, cholera, and other diseases — they often descended into the mud, lobbing insults and castigations back and forth. Their rivalry, I believe, pushed them forward, lest the other get to a discovery first. This same impetus has driven science in the decades since, from investigating HIV to SARS. Scientists are explorers, and they crave glory as much as any mountaineer or voyager.
That said, I think it’s equally important to recognize the essential element that teams play in discovery. Having the right set of complimentary colleagues makes all the difference, both in terms of camaraderie and feedback. Again, both Pasteur and Koch were fortunate to have ingenious co-researchers on their teams — in Koch’s case, several of whom went on to win the Nobel Prize, including Emil von Behring and Paul Ehrlich. On the other hand, von Behring and Ehrlich became bitter rivals themselves, so it all goes full circle!
— Thomas Goetz is a noted science journalist and healthcare innovator. The entrepreneur-in-residence at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, he is also co-founder of the health technology company, Iodine. The former executive editor of WIRED, his writing has been selected repeatedly for the Best American Science Writing and Best American Technology Writing anthologies.