Archives for: August 2006, 27
I like to read history and I'm fascinated by immunology, so how cool is it when you get a book as a gift entitled The History of Immunology?
Arthur M. Silverstein's meaty little volume for Academic Press (1989) does a very nice job of taking the reader through the myriad of ancient, medieval and renaissance concepts of immunity, including the Hippocratic and Aristocratic 'humors'; the very astute observations about smallpox by the Islamic physician Rhazes; iatrophysics and much more. I was surprised to discover that Cotton Mather, well know inquisitor of witchcraft in colonial New England, was an avid reader of the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London and very much up to date with Jenner's discoveries about the ability to immunize against smallpox with the milder cow pox organism.
On Rhazes' observations, it's surprising (if still largely unknown) that the 9th and 10th century Muslim world was the scientific powerhouse of the day, producing profound discoveries in anatomy, pharmacology and physiology (often in concert and synergy with Jewish intellectuals) at a time when Northern Europeans were still crouched around smokey fires in mud hovels. Hopefully, one of these days, the current anti-intellectualism fad will give way to a reawakening of these latent talents.
And finally, how the debates between the 'cellularists' and the 'humorists' divided along nationality (French versus German) in the quiescent period between France's humiliation at the end of the Franco-Prussian War and their repayment of the favor in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles. "It is worth noting", wrote Otto von Bismarck after the Franco-Prussion War, "That a generation that receives a beating is almost always followed by a generation that gives one."
A fact seemingly lost on many of today's political leaders..
The German camp, led by such famous scientists as Robert Koch and Rudolph Virchow, favored the 'cellular' theory i.e, the white blood cells munch up all the bad guys. Their observations eventually became the basis of Cell Mediated Immunity The 'humorists', mostly French and led by Metchnikoff and Pasteur, viewed the serum factors as being decisive, and their observations eventually became the basic of Humoral Immunity.
So they were both right.
Yet it tells much about the respective variations in national conciousness at the time. The Germans tended to view the immunological battle field as a mano-a-mano 'Test Of Will'. Us against them. The inevitable struggle. The more policemen the better. The French, on the other hand, tended to see things in terms of milieu: fixable with a change of wallpaper or a fresh coat of paint.
There are many more arguments ahead in upcoming chapters; for example whether antibodies bound one antigen (monovalent) or two (bivalent). These guys almost always had 3-4 different possible ways something could happen, and definitely enjoyed tearing into each other!
Sort of like Vanity Fair for the Nobel Prize set.