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The Fun Parts of Writing the Book!


1. Finding out that most of these scientists had not been written about.

What more could a writer, especially a new one, want?

How could such a big subject be untouched by all the historians of science? There should be four separate books on Bill Foege, alone. Only three scientists in the book had popular biographies available. All the others are such fascinating characters, and deserving as well!

2. Completing the interviews and working with the scientists.


I was nervous and hesitant, but they were all patient and edifying, so it always turned out good.

3. Learning the book would be full of action adventure hero stories.

I was expecting the scientists to have led nerdy, scholarly existences, which was fine with me. But the stories could have come out of an HBO special!

4. Learning the numbers of lives each scientist saved.


I really had no idea how many lives the various scientists saved until Amy emailed her calculations. They were astounding. The numbers came in as big as the population of states, then small countries, then big countries!

5. Discovering Golden Research Nuggets.

When I discover a little anecdote or fact I call it a ‘golden nugget.' I was thrilled when I found Al Sommer's letter to an academic journal that contained the great anecdote about Indonesian folk medicine, where the juice of lightly roasted lamb's liver is dropped into children's eyes to cure night blindness.

There is nothing published in the West on Akira Endo's personal life. When he offered to mail me three books I was ecstatic. Of course, they were written in Japanese logograms! I hired a translator and we found many interesting golden nuggets.

I knew I had a big nugget when Bill Foege said, "I should have included the next chapter for you and I vacillated back and forth because I had put things in there that I had never actually shared with people before and I found myself just a little nervous about that but I'll give you the essence."

It was readily apparent that Karl Landsteiner was a prodigious genius, but I was mostly stymied when I tried to find out anything about his personal life. I kept searching and eventually discovered that Paul Speiser had written an eccentric biography of him in German. When I found that there was an English edition, I was euphoric. First I found a website, worldcat.org, that finds the closest library for any book you want. Wake Forest University in North Carolina had an edition, 266 miles away. Then I went to Abebooks.com and immediately purchased it for $50. It was full of anecdotes and quotes and is now one of my most cherished books. Since I marked it up with highlighters I need another copy. I've searched ever since on all the used book websites, but have never again found it. Now that was a golden find!

6. And always the science itself.

The twists and turns from conjecture to hypothesis, from experiment to fact, from actual treatments to lives saved were always fascinating!

The Worst Parts of Writing the Book

1. Receiving the chapters back from the editor.

It always looked like a classroom of first graders with crayons had been let loose on my paper.  Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. And I could never argue with any of the markings. Sigh. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

2. Nerves.

If Karl Landsteiner was alive would there be any chance of my getting an interview with him? Contemplating interviewing the scientists, I hadn't been so nervous since I asked that brainy and pretty girl out in high school. Why would a great scientist ever consent to an interview with me when their time is so valuable? At least the scientists said yes!

3. Lack of material

Several scientists had virtually nothing written about their personal lives. Karl Landsteiner was so reticent he might not have wanted anything written. I only found one source for Paul Müller (thank you Sharon Bertsch McGrayne for your book Prometheans in the Lab!) I emailed all over Harvard and couldn't get a response about John Enders, probably the greatest person to come out of Harvard. I did find two people who knew him (thank you Samuel Katz and Alice Robbins!).

4. Publishers

Trying to find a publisher without an agent. Ackk!