The Soft-Spoken Desperado: Goldberger

By Paul de Kruif

Summary: Paul de Kruif was an American bacteriologist turned writer who penned one of the most famous popular-science books of all time, The Microbe Hunters. In this gripping excerpt from his later work Hunger Fighters, de Kruif tells the incredible story of Dr. Joseph Goldberger, the physician and epidemiologist of the U.S. Public Health Service charged with resolving the mysterious pellagra epidemic that was devastating the southern United States in the early 1900s. Through keen observation and genuine open-mindedness, Dr. Goldberger discovered and proved that the cause of pellagra is not a microbe—as was fiercely believed by most doctors and scientists of the time—but rather a nutritional deficiency. Dr. Goldberger’s struggle to convince his colleagues of his findings reflects the tremendous sway that “germ theory” held in medicine at the time and which stubbornly continues to dominate the field’s view of health and disease today. De Kruif’s account illustrates well the lengths medicine has always gone to deny and downplay the role of malnutrition in human illness. (On a related note, while medicine today attributes pellagra to a deficiency of the single B-complex vitamer niacin, nutrition investigators of the mid-twentieth century asserted that the cause of the disease is the lack of a complex of compounds that includes not just niacin but numerous cofactors as well. They named this complex vitamin G—the G standing for Goldberger.) From Hunger Fighters, 1928.