Book Review: Bad Air

Mosquito. iStockphoto.

Malaria is a vector-borne disease, carried by mosquitoes like this one. iStockphoto.

The crux of Slater’s book lies in the chemical revolution of the burgeoning pharmaceutical industry in the 20th century. While preliminary work on chemotherapeutic agents started in Germany, owing significantly to the dominance of the German dye industry, American investigators at various institutions around the country began to tackle the treatment of malaria as an important cause for national and international growth. As Slater aptly demonstrates, this required important conceptual transformations regarding the use of model organisms (birds, in the case of malaria), as well as methods of testing new compounds to combat this age-old blight.

Although the establishment of the National Research Council’s chemotherapy initiative in 1939 and work of the Committee on Medical Research in 1941 started to bring the malaria community together in a massive research endeavor, the United States’ plans for both war and malaria were not well organized or well funded. Many of the U.S. government’s programs for antimalarial research developed out of private networks created among research institutions, like the Rockefeller Foundation, and commercial firms, like Parke-Davis.

For Slater these networks are where the central tensions between public and private research were formed. The need to protect the interests of commercial firms, since they were primarily responsible for the development of new drugs, clashed with the government’s need for the production of massive quantities of medications for their troops, who were suffering tremendously in the Pacific. Slater concludes his work with a discussion of the ways in which the new organizational and bureaucratic structures put in place during wartime had both positive and negative impacts on biomedical research in the United States after the war.

Slater has constructed a detailed history of the development of antimalarial compounds in the early to mid-20th century, acknowledging the work of many individuals and institutions in combating this debilitating and often deadly disease. The book is fundamentally layered upon Slater’s familiarity with the subtleties and complexities of the chemical compounds used in preventing and treating malaria, but his well-argued account extends beyond simple chemical history into the realm of institutional history. Many historians of disease have focused their attention on the discovery of the mosquito as a vector for malaria, ignoring the importance of drug development and therapy for malaria prophylaxis and treatment, but Slater’s War and Disease brings such issues to the forefront and puts them within the broader context of wartime necessities in the United States during the 1940s. More important, though, Slater’s work gives us an insight into the modern structure of government-funded biomedical research, its benefits, and its pitfalls.

David Caruso is program manager for oral history at CHF.