Immunity: How Elie Metchnikoff Changed the Course of Modern Medicine, by Luba Vikhanski***-*****

immunityElie Metchnikoff is credited with several medical discoveries, some of which were found before Mother Russia was entirely ready to receive them. This interesting though technically challenging text is the story of his life, and especially of his scientific career and achievements. Thank you Net Galley and Chicago Review Press for the DRC, which I received in exchange for an honest review. This title will be available to the public April 1, 2016.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Russia still had a tsar—a royal ruler with power similar to that of an emperor—and it still had serfs, who legally could not leave the plots of land assigned to them to farm for the benefit of royal landowners. It was not an ideal climate for science or any other aspect of enlightened thinking, but Metchnikoff was not only gifted, he was immeasurably stubborn, and by such methods as posing as a college student in order to sneak into lectures, he achieved an excellent education and began to pave new inroads toward discovering how the human immune system works.

His theory that cells in the human body swarm around and dispose of microbes that enter the body in order to kill germs was true, but proving it to those with authority in Russia was not an easy thing to do. Only recently had germs been discovered to cause disease; not so long before, it was assumed that God smote certain people or their loved ones in retribution for their bad behavior or thoughts. Being a scientist in such a place was challenging, and eventually, after being snubbed repeatedly by the German academics he sought to win over, Metchnikoff found his way to Paris, and the Pasteur Institute, where he would spend the bulk of his career.

His refusal to participate in elitist cliques that feasted on 8 course gourmet meals while half of London starved warmed my heart, as did his refusal to be roped into other social pretensions. Really, in another time and place, this would be my kind of guy.

Here I must disclose the fact that the sciences are not my forte. Only since retirement from teaching in the humanities have I found the time and confidence to explore memoirs of famous scientists. Last autumn I read and reviewed the biography of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the man that discovered a brain disease that was the result of repeated blows to the head consistent with American football. Cheered by my success in understanding and reviewing that fascinating story, I decided to tackle this one…with less satisfactory results.

I have never been good at understanding science. It’s that simple.

So if science and in particular the history of immunology or disease is your wheelhouse, this may be a four or five star read for you. But although I am not scientifically minded, I do have a sturdier education than the average American, and so I think I’m being fair in saying that the average reader-on-the-street that picks this up due to general interest rather than exceptional training may find it to be a great deal of work.

I did check the endnotes; I always do. So unless the author has simply invented a lot of sources in other languages than English—which seems very unlikely indeed—then I can safely say that this author has relied primarily on sources that the average English-speaking reader will not be able to tap into. Strong documentation from a wide variety of sources.

Recommended to those with a higher than average facility for matters of science, and for those interested enough to wrestle with challenging material.


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