Alexandria, 1883

I have just finished reading the novel ‘An Imperfect Lens’ by Anne Roiphe. A central element of this book is an outbreak of cholera which took place in Alexandria in 1883. This is a work of fiction but I have the impression that it is rather close to the historical reality. I enjoyed reading this book a lot and I preferred it to the other novel centred on a cholera epidemic I have read, ‘Le Hussard sur le Toit’ by Jean Giono. One reason is the keen sense of reality, also microscopic reality, which the author manages to convey. She also introduces many ideas about the nature of science and scientists and their relations to other types of people and other fields of discourse. The book presents a vivid picture of a vibrant city where cultures mix.

The historical background is that both France and Germany sent expeditions to determine the cause of the epidemic. The action of the book centres on the French group. They were sent by Pasteur, who was himself too old to take part. His rival, Robert Koch, makes a number of brief appearances in the pages of the book. The two teams are racing against each other to find the organism causing the disease and patriotic motives are not to be neglected. At the same time it turns out that they have to race to reach their goal before the epidemic itself subsides.

In the end Koch won the race although his work needed to be completed by his later investigations in India. The French team, as it is presented in the novel, strikes me as not very professional. I thought of Scott’s expedition to the south pole – in this comparison Koch is the analogue of the more professional, and finally more successful, Amundsen.

Some years ago I read a biography of Koch and this played a big role in stimulating my present enthusiasm for medicine. Here was a practical scientist who I could wholeheartedly admire. (I pass over certain events in the later part of his life connected with tuberculin which I am not sure are so admirable.) On a couple of occasions since then I took part in open days at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin which included, among other things, excellent lectures. In one of these the speaker described her participation in an expedition to Laos to investigate an outbreak of SARS at a time when the nature of that disease was still quite unclear. This made me feel that I had come close to the heritage of Robert Koch.


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