"A valuable read that will help you understand what it takes to stop COVID-19. … A super interesting look at the science of immunity.” —Bill Gates, Gates Notes Summer Reading List
The Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times journalist "explicates for the lay reader the intricate biology of our immune system" (Jerome Groopman, MD, New York Review of Books)
From New York Times science journalist Matt Richtel, An Elegant Defense is an acclaimed and definitive exploration of the immune system and the secrets of health. Interweaving cutting-edge science with the intimate stories of four individual patients, this epic, first-of-its-kind book “give[s] lay readers a means of understanding what’s known so far about the intricate biology of our immune systems” (The Week).
The immune system is our body’s essential defense network, a guardian vigilantly fighting illness, healing wounds, maintaining order and balance, and keeping us alive. It has been honed by evolution over millennia to face an almost infinite array of threats. For all its astonishing complexity, however, the immune system can be easily compromised by fatigue, stress, toxins, advanced age, and poor nutrition—hallmarks of modern life—and even by excessive hygiene. Paradoxically, it is a fragile wonder weapon that can turn on our own bodies with startling results, leading today to epidemic levels of autoimmune disorders.
An Elegant Defense effortlessly guides readers on a scientific detective tale winding from the Black Plague to twentieth-century breakthroughs in vaccination and antibiotics, to today’s laboratories that are revolutionizing immunology—perhaps the most extraordinary and consequential medical story of our time. Drawing on extensive new interviews with dozens of world-renowned scientists, Richtel has produced a landmark book, equally an investigation into the deepest riddles of survival and a profoundly human tale that is movingly brought to life through the eyes of his four main characters, each of whom illuminates an essential facet of our “elegant defense.”
New York Times reporter Richtel (A Deadly Wandering) takes on "one of the world's most complex organic systems" in this entertaining survey of the science of immunology. In punchy prose ("Picture a festival a wide-open, take-all-comers bash. This is life inside your body"), Richtel covers the history of research into the field, including Jacques Miller's thymectomies on mice in the 1950s and '60s, which led to the discovery of T cells, a key immune system component; Peter Doherty's more recent work on the major histocompatibility complex or MHC, "the single most varied or polymorphic of all human genes"; and, in the '90s, the contributions of multiple scientists to HIV research. He also provides close-ups on the case histories of four people, including two women suffering from autoimmune disorders, interwoven through discussions of myriad present-day concerns: the recent spike in allergies in children; the dangers of overprescribed antibiotics; the problems that modern, antiseptic, and stress-filled lifestyles pose for the immune system; and the growing importance of monoclonal antibody therapeutics. In the course of examining "the broader environment surrounding our immune systems," Richtel creates a hard-to-put-down account of the body's first line of defense.