Dr. Paul de Kruif, a Zeeland native whose 1926 book “Microbe Hunters” became an international bestseller and inspired a generation of scientists and medical professionals, and who had a major influence on the healthcare issues of his day, is himself the subject of a new book. “A Constant State of Emergency: Paul de Kruif, Microbe Hunter and Health Activist,” by Dr. Jan Peter Verhave, has been published by The Van Raalte Press at Hope College as number 98 in the Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America.
Although De Kruif’s career as a microbiologist and writer spanned decades, he hasn’t previously been the subject of a book-length biography. “A Constant State of Emergency” explores his work, impact, and professional and personal struggles. The title is from a comment about him by writer John Steinbeck: “Paul is in a constant state of emergency.”
“At long last, we now have a full biography of Paul de Kruif, a larger-than-life figure of immense influence in the middle decades of the 20th century,” said Dr. William C. Summers, who is professor emeritus of therapeutic radiology, molecular biophysics and biochemistry and history of medicine at Yale University. “This carefully researched account of his life and work — warts and all — illuminates this explainer of medicine from a period that set the stage for much of our modern era.”
Verhave, whose own career has been in microbiology, was the first Netherland-America Foundation Visiting Research Fellow at the Van Raalte Institute during 2006-07 and has been an honorary research fellow with the institute since 2009. As he explains in the book, “A number of (medical) historians have either written about parts of De Kruif’s work or quoted him, en passant, as an icon of medical times past. But their publications on the history of diseases, public health reform, and health insurance focus mainly on his earlier years as a writer. De Kruif’s later activities through the thirties to the end of the fifties are less well explored by professional historians.
“Yet this is the period of his life that shows striking parallels to the controversies in healthcare in his time and ours,” he continues. “It was and is all about affordability of healthcare, distrust of the government’s bureaucracy, mingling with the doctor’s sacred office, and the citizen’s freedom of choice. If he were alive today, De Kruif might well be an important player in the politics of healthcare.”
De Kruif, who lived from 1890 to 1971, had strong West Michigan roots — his grandfather came to America on the same ship as the Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte, founder of Holland — although Verhave notes that the arc of his personal life didn’t reflect his conservative Dutch-Calvinist upbringing. Professionally, De Kruif first pursued a career in microbiology after earning a doctorate from the University of Michigan, but then, in the early 1920s, decided to write for the public on medical matters and science.
“In the beginning of his writing career, his articles and books meant bread and butter and booze,” Verhave writes in “A Constant State of Emergency.” “But later on, his empathy, unselfish actions, and political principles became important motives for publicizing and agitating about the suffering of his fellow Americans. He studied and worked amidst his allies and adversaries, doctors and writers, and journalists and scientists during the Great Depression and the New Deal and beyond World War II, making his mark in the medical debates of mid-twentieth-century America.”
De Kruif informed, educated and disturbed the public at large with his 318 articles in popular magazines and his 12 books, spanning four decades. His 112 articles in the Reader’s Digest, which had 16 million subscribers at its peak, earned him immense influence. He was also well-known by some 200,000 medical doctors all across the country, as well as an inestimable number of foreign readers.
“Through his words and deeds, he fought for the reform of the American healthcare system as a whole, including the prevention and treatment of diseases and affordable healthcare for individual families, the poor in particular,” Verhave writes in the book.
“During his lifetime, the heated discussion about health and reform flared up and peaked with every new administration,” Verhave continues. “De Kruif kept up with developments, changing his own views on various subjects over time, and made recommendations that led in some cases to valuable improvements to public healthcare in the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Vice President Henry Wallace, and Surgeon General Thomas Parran all showed interest in the views of Paul de Kruif.”
“De Kruif was also an appreciated companion among other journalists and novelists, among them Clarence Day, Henry L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, Sidney Howard, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck,” Verhave notes.
Verhave received his Ph.D. from the University of Nijmegen Medical School in 1975. His teaching and research in vaccination, immunology, and the epidemiology of malaria took him to Senegal, Burkina Faso and Cameroon, Africa. He taught for many years at Radboud University Medical School, where he became an internationally recognized authority in parasitology. His scientific publications include “The Moses of Malaria: Nicolaas Swellengrebel, Abroad and at Home” (2011), “The Medical Journal of the Indies 1852-1942,” editor (2017), and some 250 articles in scientific journals. He also is the author of five books in church history and art. He lives in Malden, the Netherlands.
Established in 1994, the Van Raalte Institute specializes in scholarly research and writing on immigration and the contributions of the Dutch and their descendants in the United States. The institute is also dedicated to the study of the history of all the people who have comprised the community of Holland throughout its history. In 2007, then-director Dr. Jacob E. Nyenhuis established The Van Raalte Press as a vehicle to publish the publications developed by the institute. The Van Raalte Press is also the official publisher of papers presented at the biennial conferences of the Association for the Advancement of Dutch-American Studies.
“A Constant State of Emergency: Paul de Kruif, Microbe Hunter and Health Activist” is in paperback and retails for $35. The book is available online and at the Hope College Bookstore on the lower level of the DeWitt Center, which is located at 141 E. 12th St., facing Columbia Avenue between 10th and 13th streets, and can be visited online at hope.edu/bookstore. The book can also be purchased at Reader’s World in downtown Holland.