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Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the…

Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure

by Jim Murphy

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My VOYA ratings: 1P, 4Q

This book takes on a subject that most young readers have no interest in, a subject that has a history that dates back to the beginning of mankind. The writing is clear, engaging, and memorable. I learned a lot from this book.
  laureneve | May 9, 2013 |
This is the story of a killer that has been striking down people for thousands of years -- tuberculosis. This nonfiction mystery looks at the history of the disease and its treatment throughout time, as well as the search to find the cause and cure. The scientific and historical information is filled with human drama as well as photographs that bring the story to life.
  KilmerMSLibrary | Apr 30, 2013 |
An excellent "biography" of the dreaded disease told from the perspectives of both science and social history. Not as gripping a narrative as An American Plague but still quite fascinating. ( )
  Sullywriter | Apr 3, 2013 |
Lauren Fields
March 18, 2013

The book I chose for this midterm is Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure by Jim Murphy and Alison Blank. This is a specialized book, detailing the scientific, historical, and cultural aspects of tuberculosis. It is well researched and highly informative. However in some places, the book’s structure and language inadequately convey its subject matter.

On the back cover of the book there is some brief information about the authors. Jim Murphy is described as “the author of many award-winning books for young readers.” While true, that does not necessarily qualify Mr. Murphy to write a book about infectious disease or public health. He may have the ability and knowledge, the book just does not give any evidence of that. A search of Jim Murphy on the internet offers no more evidence of his qualifications to write this book. His website, www.jimmurphybooks.com, does not state what he studied in school or what his degree is in. It states that he worked in “juvenile publishing” before writing books himself. Alison Blank is described as “a children’s media creator, writer, and editor” on the back cover. And a search of her credentials on the internet leads a reader to www.linkedin.com/in/alisonblank. Like Mr. Murphy, there is no indication what degree she possesses. While Ms. Blank may be an accomplished writer, editor, and developer of content meant for children she appears to have no qualifications to write this book. That being said, the authors offer a great deal of cited research that brings authority to the accuracy of Invincible Microbe.

Murphy and Blank have included in Invincible Microbe a wonderful annotated bibliography. The books they reference vary. They cite biographies, scholarly histories, and books on medicine and microbiology. Their research seems extensive and adequate for this book. This book also has source notes divided by chapter at the end, giving the reference for every quote. The picture credits are less detailed than a reader may want. The images’ origination is given in an alphabetic list of people and institutions with a number or group of numbers after the contributor’s name that indicates which pictures were from that source. The number 15 indicates, not that it is on page fifteen, but that it is the fifteenth picture in the book. This is a terrible way to reference anything. Perhaps this will not be the final way the authors credit the images in the final draft of this book. This is possible because the least words on the last page are “INDEX TK.” p.144 This indicates that the publisher’s intent to have an index concluding this book, but have not included it in this advance copy. If the book is not completely finalized that would explain a few other minor mistakes throughout the text. There are spaces included and excluded within sentences incorrectly. These typographical errors are sure to be fixed before the final draft, and were ignored for the purpose of this analysis.

Murphy and Blank offered most of their book informatively with seemingly little opinion coloring the facts. However, some parts of the book do not conform to this standard. In the first chapter, the authors describe a Homo erectus from half a million years ago as being “tired and irritable” and that his groupmates “tried to make him comfortable.” p. 3 The authors have conflated logical assumption and facts. While their intention to personalize a distant event is understandable, they do not modify their, or more probably a researcher’s, inference with any language relocating the information to opinion. Here is another example: “Whether young or old, good or bad, a consumptive on the slow road to death was a miserable, lonely sufferer.” p. 26. Again, this is an incredibly understandable assumption, but an assumption none the less.

The overall structure of Invincible Microbe is chronological and a story narrative, but within that structure the authors focus on topics. These topics often overlap temporally and the narrative jumps from one topic to the next. The structure of the topics is logical and easily followed, but the authors’ choices of what information to elaborate feel arbitrary. Examples and first hand accounts are the facts that give value to a specialized book, but one gets the sense reading this book that the authors expanded aspects of the narrative more than others based on their interest or the accessibility of some sources. The scope of Invincible Microbe is the effect of tuberculosis from prehistory to the present. Proportionally large sections of the book are taken with descriptions of Dr. Trudeau’s sanatorium and California’s deportation of illegal immigrants in the early nineteen thirties. To compare, more than sixteen pages are centered on turn of the century sanatoriums, seven pages on California’s unjust immigration policies, and only three pages on the creation of the first antibiotic, streptomycin, that killed the tuberculosis bacterium.

This unusual or not obvious choice of foci by the authors, gives the book an uneven level of depth. The title of the book Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure, eludes that it will be about the search for a cure for tuberculosis. The authors state in the beginning of their bibliography:
We have approached the story of tuberculosis from three distinct perspectives. First, it is the “biography” of an evolving micro-organism. Second, it is an account of how the illness caused by this tiny invader came to be treated and cured. Finally, it is the social history of the disease, describing how sufferers were viewed and dealt with by the society around them. p. 124

To a reader, the first two approaches are much shallower than the last. This may have been intentional, but it is antithetical to the title. Further, searching for cures is a medical or scientific pursuit. One would think that this would be a source of information on tuberculosis, as a disease. There actually is very little scientific information in this book. Invincible Microbe also makes some awkward assumptions about the knowledge of its audience.

On the back of the book it states that it is intended for ages 9-12. The authors assume that this book’s readers know what a bacterium is and how it affects an organism. It uses words like micro-organism, germ, virulent, evolve, bacteria, bacillus, strain, and lymph without defining the terms. Further, many of the terms are used interchangeably, without distinction. One comes away from this reading having learned about the socio-cultural history of tuberculosis, but very little of its biology. However, its biology informs its “biography.” And to understand Murphy and Blank’s narrative, one must have a basic understanding of infection. This may or may not be true for most nine year olds, and it is not presented in this book. Other than some select terms the vocabulary of Invincible Microbe is accessible to a nine year old. However, the language structure is too complex at times.

For a targeted audience of nine to twelve year olds, the prose should be clear and the sentence structure should not have many phrases. These are two examples of sentences in Invincible Microbe:
In Pennsylvania, for instance, only twelve of the twenty-nine public tuberculosis institutions accepted poor or minority patients, and all but a few of the twelve made it a practice to segregate African Americans and other minority patients from whites. p. 66
While African Americans worked to establish their own local tuberculosis associations, hospitals, and sanatoriums in cities like Detroit and in states like Virginia and South Carolina, their valiant efforts could only address the needs of a modest few. p. 71
These sentences are unnecessarily convoluted. While most of the sentences in this book are simple, straight forward, and understandable some are like these and negatively affect the impact of the narrative. Further there is extensive use of the passive voice. Not a very good device for informative material. The language of a nonfiction book should be clear, with precise word usage; passive voice inherently dilutes the content of a text. As well as affecting the clarity of the narrative, the authors’ meandering language impacted the tone of Invincible Microbe.

The tone of the majority of the book is neutral. At times, the authors’ objectivity is obscured by their verbose style. The majority of the prose in Invincible Microbe is unbiased and informative, supplemented with cited quotes. However, Murphy and Blank, in the very first section of the book offer a condescending, and unnecessarily convoluted introduction to their narrative. “This is the story of a small, harmless-looking germ that has been infecting people for millions of years.” p. 1 The next paragraph is one sentence with four semicolons, two comas, and one dash to indicate a dramatic pause. The next paragraph simply says “[t]his is the story of tuberculosis.” The first page accurately tells the reader what is in the book, but not in an inviting manner. The first chapter then begins with that supposed account of the Homo erectus. The tone of the book improves steadily from their attaining neutrality allowing people’s quotes to offer opinions to the reader. There is however on page 40 a conspicuous contribution by the authors. After quotes from a panicked tuberculosis victim about not wanting to enter a sanatorium, Murphy and Blank write, “[t]he knowledge that you had a disease with no known cure must have been extraordinarily frightening.” A reader may find this condescending language.

The descriptive language of Invincible Microbe is often well used and effective. Murphy and Blank write that in the nineteenth century “[m]any children worked twelve-hour days in cramped, dangerous factories. After work, they went to crowded, filthy dormitories to sleep, often two to a bed.” pp. 24-25 This is a very evocative. Towards the end of the book the authors write “sometimes the TB bacteria will break into microphages and begin multiplying inside them. Since streptomycin does not kill microphages, the TB germ might stay safely walled within this protective cover for weeks or even decades.” p. 105 Their use of language really explains this biological process comprehensively. However, this leads the reader to wonder why such detail and explanation was not given for most of the science in this book. There is a nice detail on this page and in a few locations throughout the book. Some complicated words, especially names derived from Latin or Greek, have an asterisk by them. At the bottom of the page is an asterisk and the word’s pronunciation.

The format of Invincible Microbe is typical of most specialized books. It is filled with quotes and pictures. The book is divided into topical chapters whose titles evoke meaning only after the chapter is read. The chapter titles do not negatively impact the book, but sense they are neither overtly evocative nor informative to a first time reading, they serve little purpose beyond organizing the narrative. The front cover of the book has a picture of women supine in an infirmary. They look healthy and sanguine, but there is an institutional appearance to the row of beds. The photograph at once alludes to the ubiquity of the disease and does not frighten a young reader from the subject matter. The words “Invincible Microbe” is in the biggest font on the cover in red, with the rest of the lettering below in blue. The title is engaging even if not fully substantiated by the content of the book. The title page has a microscopic photograph of the tuberculosis bacteria. This advises the reader what the book will focus on, the bacteria itself. Before the contents page there is a page of quotes depicting the historical and emotional impact of tuberculosis on our culture. This does assist the reader, by setting a tone of socio-cultural relevance of the subject matter before the story even begins. Unfortunately the actual beginning of the story loses that tone, only to strive to regain it later. The many photographs in this book, almost one on every page, offer authority and encourage engagement in the reader.

The pictures and illustrations usually follow the narrative effectively aiding the story and elaborating the information. There were a few places where the pictures seem to have little or nothing to do with their accompanying text. The difference in these cases were so striking, again they seemed to be a result of the book being an unfinished product. Most likely those few pictures will be moved to better places before the final printing of the book. An obvious example of this was a blank half page that had the words “MAP ART TO COME.” p. 117 A map there illuminating the placement and distribution of tuberculosis hot zones, which is the logical choice given the text on the surrounding pages, would be very useful.

Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure is a very interesting book, with a good amount of information on the subject matter. The content is well researched, cited, and predominately presented in a clear manner. The authors do an excellent job of integrating history, literature, sociology, and politics into a story that could have been isolated as merely scientific.

I am studying to be a Middle School science teacher. This is exactly the kind of book I would like to offer my future students as supplemental or self-directed reading to expand their exposure from the narrow focus of science to incorporate other disciplines.
I am confident that some of issues I have brought up about this book will be addressed before its final printing. Even if they are not changed, Murphy and Blank offer a divergent perspective to a common disease. And I think students in Middle School would benefit from the introduction to that perspective, even if it is not presented as effectively as possible.

A search for all books about infectious diseases in UNO’s College of Education library only offered one result, Deadly Invaders: Virus Outbreaks Around the World, From Marburg Fever to Avian Flu by Denise Grady, written in 2006. Given this and the Invincible Microbe was one of only two books that came up from a subject search of tuberculosis in our educational library, I would recommend its inclusion in the school’s collection.

In general the reviews of this book on Amazon were very enlightening. They pointed out more convincingly that I had concluded that the recommended age was way too low. Some of the reviewers gave examples and analyzed the language to prove that the reading level of this book was much above a twelve year old. And many of the reviewers pointed out the unevenness of the writing and focus of the story. Especially helpful were reviews by christinemm, HeatherHH, and Gabriel's Buddy. Dienne on Amazon says that in

the last twenty pages that we get the feeling that there is more to this story; we start to feel that perhaps there is a political message in there. Earlier, the authors had discussed New York City's early attempts to battle TB by, among other things, registering all TB sufferers by name and address on an official list. Such plans were shot down, in part due to privacy and civil liberties concerns, which seems to disappoint the authors, who seem to approve of the alarmism used to rouse (and scare) the public in order to combat TB. http://www.amazon.com/Invincible-Microbe-Tuberculosis-Never-Ending-Search/produc...

I did not notice that bias when I read the book, but it is a valuable interpretation to consider. A review on School Library Journal by Denise Schmidt said the Invincible Microbe “writing is crisp and clinical.” http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/slj/home/895104-312/invincible_microbe_tuber... There is no mention of the book being inconsistent. A review by Carolyn Phelan on Booklist states Invincible Microbe is “[w]ide ranging in breadth, yet always well focused on the topic at hand, this fascinating book offers a sharply detailed picture of tuberculosis throughout history.” http://www.booklistonline.com/Invincible-Microbe-Tuberculosis-and-the-Never-Endi... I believe this to be its intention, but not always achieved. The review on Kirkus states “[t]he broad focus of the slim volume allows it to be about many things: medical discovery, technology, art and how people from all walks of life have dealt with a deadly disease that pays no attention to social distinctions.” http://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/jim-murphy/invincible-microbe/ I disagree with this statement. The scope of this book was broad but the focus was uneven and disjointed. Frankly the best most informative reviews of Invincible Microbe were on Amazon.com. If nothing else, I have learned to actually read the reviews that people write on commercial websites.
Overall I would recommend Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure by Jim Murphy and Alison Blank, but I would not stop looking for a better historical and socio0cultural account of infectious disease. ( )
  L_Fields | Mar 17, 2013 |
For centuries tuberculosis in many forms was treated with everything from poultices and potions to the king's touch. The microorganism that causes the disease was eventually identified, more effective treatments were developed, and the cure for TB was thought to be within reach. But the TB germ simply will not die; drug-resistant varieties continue to plague and panic the human race. The "biography" of this deadly germ, an account of the diagnosis, treatment, and "cure" of the disease over time, and the social history of an illness that could strike anywhere but was most prevalent among the poor are woven together and supported by 70-plus archival prints and photographs. ( )
  prkcs | Dec 11, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0618535748, Hardcover)

This is the story of a killer that has been striking people down for thousands of years:
tuberculosis. After centuries of ineffective treatments, the microorganism that causes
TB was identified, and the cure was thought to be within reach—but drug-resistant
varieties continue to plague and panic the human race. The “biography” of this deadly
germ, an account of the diagnosis, treatment, and “cure” of the disease over time,
and the social history of an illness that could strike anywhere but was most prevalent
among the poor are woven together in an engrossing, carefully researched narrative.
Bibliography, source notes, index.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:27 -0400)

"This is the compelling, suspenseful, down-to-earth story of a killer that has been stalking and doing away with people for thousands of years: Tuberculosis. For centuries TB in many forms was treated with everything from poultices and potions to the king's touch. The microorganism that causes the disease was eventually identified, more effective treatments were developed, and the cure for TB was thought to be within reach. But the TB germ simply will not die; drug-resistant varieties continue to plague and panic the human race. The "biography" of this deadly germ, an account of the diagnosis, treatment, and "cure" of the disease over time, and the social history of an illness that could strike anywhere but was most prevalent among the poor are woven together in an engrossing narrative supported by 70-plus archival prints and photographs. Includes bibliography, source notes, and index"-- "From one of the most acclaimed writers of nonfiction for children, Invincible Microbe illuminates the seemingly unstoppable killer that's been haunting us for centuries: tuberculosis. Well-researched and including over 100 archival photos and prints, this compelling "biography" of a deadly germ is a must-read"--… (more)

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