An absorbing, informative blend of historical fiction and medical history, centered around one man’s steadfast determination to help solve a deadly mystery


In Search of the Animalcule 

Steven L. Berk, M.D. 


December 8, 2022 

ISBN: 978-1663248015, 228 pages


Lubbock writer Steven L. Berk’s first novel, In Search of the Animalcule, offers an absorbing, informative blend of historical fiction and medical history, centered around one man’s steadfast determination to help solve a deadly mystery.  


Set in Europe and the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, In Search of the Animalcule’s fictional hero, Jacob Pfleger, becomes a focused and skilled research assistant to several doctors and medical scientists remembered today for key discoveries in the field of infectious diseases. 


Pfleger’s mother had died just one day after giving birth to him, leaving him an orphan. Once Jacob became old enough to understand how she had passed away—from a mysterious disease then known as “childbed fever” that was killing many new mothers in hospital maternity wards—he vowed he would help discover its cause and stop it. 


Some readers may doubt that a twelve-year-old could both find the father who abandoned his mother before he was born and declare himself ready to seek “a life of meaning and an opportunity to fulfill my destiny.” But Jacob has lived a hard life in a Vienna orphanage and learned how to be resourceful, self-sufficient, and alert to opportunities. And some people have suspected he is a child prodigy or a savant.  


Jacob Pfleger’s quest to find a cure begins as a coming-of-age story that soon leads him to opportunities to work as a laboratory research assistant. He gets his first break when a medical scientist who later will be world-famous meets the youth and is impressed by his intelligence and focused energy. He puts Jacob to work gathering daily research samples: cow’s milk and some grapes from a blighted vineyard. Through powerful microscopes, Jacob at last can see the bacteria—the “animalcules”—that have killed countless people and haunted his thoughts about his mother’s death. His involvement in an era of lifesaving medical discoveries is quickly deepened and energized.  


The medical scientists Jacob assists include Louis Pasteur, the French microbiologist who would discover the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation, and pasteurization; British physician Joseph Lister, who would pioneer antiseptic surgery and preventative medicine; German physician Robert Koch, one of the key founders of modern bacteriology; and William Osler, a Canadian physician and one of the founders of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, who would later be hailed as the “father of modern medicine.” Osler famously moved medical students out of lecture halls and had them learn to be physicians at patients’ bedsides. He also created the first residency program where doctors received in-depth training in specialized medical areas. In the novel, Osler plays a key role in Jacob’s transition to an important new medical career.  


Without giving away essential details, connections, and surprises within this novel’s plot, Berk’s writing makes clear that many doctors in the late nineteenth century did not trust what they could not see, and many patients died as a result. Early microscopes were not yet powerful enough to reveal “animalcules,” the now-outdated term for microscopic organisms that include bacteria, protozoans, and a wide array of miniscule lifeforms. For example, when Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis announced he had found a simple way to end childbed fever in a Vienna, Austria, maternity ward (the same one where Jacob Pfleger’s mother dies in the novel), many physicians “could not believe [his] doctrine,” Berk writes. “They disbelieved not because they reviewed the science, the facts that Semmelweis had carefully gathered, but because they chose not to do so. Who wanted to believe that their own hands had caused the deaths of patients? So Semmelweis was insulted and labeled a Hungarian foreigner who did not speak well and who was a danger to the profession of medicine.” Years later, after he was dead, it would be discovered that Semmelweis had been on the right path. 


The author knows his subject matter well. Dr. Berk is an infectious disease specialist and dean of Texas Tech’s School of Medicine. His scientific explanations and examples are clear, and most of the characters’ dialogue seems appropriate and reasonable for fiction set in the nineteenth century. To keep the Animalcule story moving forward at a modern pace, however, the writer occasionally must let his characters engage in discourse and speak some longer-than-normal dialogue sentences, much like actors on a stage imparting news, backstory details, or new challenges to each other and their unseen audience. Of course, more than 125 years ago, there was no social media or email. So there were few other ways to spread useful scientific information except by word of mouth, letter, or publication in a journal or newspaper. 


In Search of the Animalcule is Steven L. Berk’s second book. His previous work, Anatomy of a Kidnapping: A Doctor’s Story, is a nonfiction account of what it was like to be a kidnap victim for a few hours after a “dangerous and enigmatic criminal” entered his house in Amarillo armed with a shotgun. 

Steven L. Berk, M.D., is dean of the Texas Tech School of Medicine and provost of Texas Tech Health Sciences Center. As a physician certified in infectious disease and geriatrics, Dr. Berk has treated a wide range of patients in his 40-year medical career.