Im­mu­nity: How Elie Metch­nikoff Changed the Course of Mod­ern Medicine

Luba Vikhan­ski

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews Adult Nonfiction - ANNA CALL

Chicago Re­view Press Hard­cover $26.99 (336pp) 978-1-61373-110-9

The book deftly il­lus­trates both the valiant strug­gles and the tragedies of Metch­nikoff’s life.

Luba Vikhan­ski’s Im­mu­nity: How Elie Metch­nikoff Changed the Course of Mod­ern Medicine makes newly fas­ci­nat­ing the story of this once-legendary sci­en­tist. At one time a gi­ant of im­munol­ogy, Elie Metch­nikoff dropped into the back pages of his­tory dur­ing the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. How­ever, as un­der­stand­ing of the role of bac­te­ria in the hu­man body im­proves, his the­o­ries are re­turn­ing to the fore­front.

Metch­nikoff’s the­o­ries cen­tered on digestion as a critical com­po­nent of cel­lu­lar health and hu­man longevity. His work fo­cused on both the cel­lu­lar and macro­scopic lev­els, delv­ing first into im­munol­ogy, where his proposed “phago­cytes” (which we know as macrophages) di­gested cel­lu­lar-level in­vaders, and then into the search for longevity by way of diet. In this, he was a man be­fore his time. Metchinkoff’s study of sour milk as a source of “good” bac­te­ria ca­pa­ble of cor­rect­ing health prob­lems pre­saged the cur­rent pro­bi­otics move­ment by close to a hun­dred years.

Metch­nikoff is a pow­er­ful per­son­al­ity ca­pa­ble of soar­ing highs and sui­ci­dal depths. Pas­sion­ate about his sub­ject, he both at­tacked and ac­ci­den­tally nur­tured his en­e­mies, and the book deftly il­lus­trates both the valiant strug­gles and the tragedies of his life. Hav­ing gleaned a per­sonal per­spec­tive from let­ters, the au­thor builds Metch­nikoff into a mag­netic char­ac­ter and sets him in a vi­brant sci­en­tific and his­tor­i­cal scene.

Im­mu­nity is smoothly writ­ten, with charm­ing turns of phrase that en­gage and de­mand at­ten­tion. The au­thor adroitly in­cor­po­rates in­for­ma­tion about Metch­nikoff’s per­sonal life into the over­all theme of his re­search, of­ten blur­ring the line be­tween the man and his pas­sion while al­ways telling the story of his re­mark­able life. The fusti­est of sci­en­tific squab­bles take on a live­li­ness that will keep even the least sci­en­tif­i­cally minded minds in­ter­ested. No back­ground in im­munol­ogy or his­tory is nec­es­sary to un­der­stand the book’s sub­ject, and its lan­guage re­mains highly ac­ces­si­ble through­out.

Im­mu­nity will be of spe­cial in­ter­est to med­i­cal per­son­nel and stu­dents who are in­ter­ested in gut flora. How­ever, thanks to cur­rent in­ter­est in Metch­nikoff’s fo­cus of study, it is likely to have broad ap­peal as well. As a bi­og­ra­phy, it is eas­ily strong enough to rec­om­mend to gen­eral fans of the genre.

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