In Vivo, by Mildred Savage, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964, Pp. 639, $5.95 hb, Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett. Pp. 639. $1.25 pb.
Although scientific research is one of the most exciting activities a man can engage in, there has been very little fiction written about it. Such books as have appeared have considered science either as a random activity, of no special significance (as in C.P. Snow's THE SEARCH) or condemned it as a source of evil and destruction (as in Pearl Buck's COMMAND THE MORNING). In contrast, IN VIVO, a novel by Mildred Savage, depicts science as it is: demanding, fascinating—and immensely benevolent. The value of science is dramatized by her choice of topic: the search for a new drug.
The story is set in the late 1940's. The first two antibiotics (penicillin and Streptomycin) have recently been discovered. Tom Cable, a young biochemist, comes to his employers with a radical proposal: to search for a more powerful drug of a new type—a broad spectrum antibiotic. The directors of Enright, a small chemical company, are not enthusiastic; the venture would mean investing millions in exploration of an unknown field, with no guarantee that success is even possible. Cable soon finds that persuading Enright to undertake the project is only the beginning of his struggle. He must fight two battles at once: against a scientific problem of fantastic difficulty—and against increasing opposition to the project, as costs mount and continual failure begins to demoralize the entire research staff.
One of Savage's greatest assets as a writer is an uncommon psychological perceptiveness. By means of it she creates characters who are both believable and interesting: Mills, the madcap but competent pharmacologist; Ade Hale, Enright's president, who finds his "objectivity" concerning the project turning to fascination; Brainard, vice president, who sees in the project's expected failure a chance to discredit Hale and take his job; Brainard's daughter Diana, who first attracts Cable by her fiery idealism, then repels him by her lust for power.
Unfortunately, IN VIVO has some annoying flaws. Aside from a rather loose plot and some stylistic immaturities, one must take exception to the strong implication in this book that women are fit only to encourage their husbands, or, at most, work as lab technicians. Also, there is a strange ambivalence in the author's style, as if she were making an unnatural effort to force herself to be naturalistic; every so often an incident is inserted to make Cable seem more "ordinary"—a device which fails totally.
But the great value of this novel is its power to convey the nature and goals of the scientist. Savage makes the reader feel the frustration of the antibiotics that are not good enough, the antibiotics that are broad spectrum but are toxic, the weeks and months of failure after failure—and the scientist's reward, the passing of that final test when drug and disease meet in silent combat in the veins of an old woman dying of pneumonia. It is the untold story of science which IN VIVO tells—and tells well.
Ronald Merrill is completing his work for the Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Oregon. His article, "The NEW AntiScience Movement," appeared in REASON, January 1973.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "In Vivo".