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Book Review: An Elegant Defense

The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System

by Matt RichtelHarperCollins
reviewed by Alizah Solario
Heal
An Elegant Defense book cover

You probably don’t give your immune system enough credit. That will change after reading Matt Richtel’s An Elegant Defense, a deeply reported account of how the immune system works, how researchers came to understand it (it started with tumors on a chicken), and what happens when disease swarms its defenses. The book reveals depths about both immunology and sociocultural responses to illness and disease, making the immune system’s function—to maintain wellness—all the more amazing. 

Richtel’s research  hinges on four intimate stories of individuals with compromised immune systems, including that of his friend since childhood Jason, who opens the book on his way to receive a new treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Ritchel weaves dense, complex research into suspense and human drama; his book reads, at times, like a harrowing mystery novel. 

Or a comedy. An anecdote about the “three wise men” of what’s known as the monoclonal antibody starts with “A Dane, an Argentinian Jew, and a German walk into a research lab . . .” and proceeds with a clear and thoughtful description of how researchers discovered the way the body responds to different pathogens and fights disease—in other words, how “the dance between self and alien took place.” 

The immune system is wily and complex, but most illuminating is how the body’s fight against disease parallels battles waged on the outside. From the stigma and fear that pervaded early AIDS research to what the Amish can tell us about allergies, An Elegant Defense proves time and time again that our understanding of the immune system is inextricably tied to culture, belief, and community. —Alizah Solario


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