‘An Elegant Defense’ explores the immune system’s softer side

A new book overturns simplistic notions of our body’s "war machine"


TO THE RESCUE  White blood cells known as neutrophils (one shown in red with staph bacteria in yellow) are the immune system’s frontline defenders against pathogens.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

An Elegant Defense
Matt Richtel
William Morrow, $28.99

We like to think of the immune system as our own personal military, ready to attack foreign invaders. Slice your finger, and immune cells rush in to destroy rogue pathogens.

But it’s misleading to think of the immune system as solely a war machine. It must also keep the peace, assessing each threat and, in many cases, deciding to stand down. (This often-overlooked peacekeeping role is what allows the microbiome, the collection of microorganisms that live in and on the body, to thrive.) In An Elegant Defense, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Matt Richtel argues that it is this ability — to differentiate friend from foe (or neutral party) and act accordingly — that makes the immune system so powerful and so elegant.

“It is a system precisely and delicately tailored to stay in balance, keep the peace and do as little damage as possible to us and our surroundings,” he writes. And that balance is central to our health. 

An Elegant Defense offers a sweeping overview of immunology’s history, from Élie Metchnikoff’s observations in the 1800s of immune cells swarming splinters in starfish larvae to recent discoveries underpinning cancer immunotherapy. Richtel explains all of this science through the stories of four individuals deeply affected by their immune systems. Richtel’s childhood friend Jason Greenstein is battling a stubborn form of Hodgkin’s disease that seems to be invisible to his immune response. Bob Hoff contracted HIV in 1977, but his immune system managed to keep the virus in check. And the lives of Linda Segre and Merredith Branscombe have been radically altered by their overactive immune systems.

Richtel, who covers science and technology for the New York Times, once joked that the paper’s writing will always remain “dry and lifeless.” But that’s not Richtel’s style. The prose in An Elegant Defense is vibrant, conversational, direct and often funny. He introduces one story like this: “A Dane, an Argentinian Jew and a German walk into a research lab…”

But Richtel seems to presume that readers will find too much science tedious. Describing how the body can make hundreds of millions of different antibodies, he offers readers a “pep talk” and implores them to “Soldier on!”

At times he glosses over experimental details in ways guaranteed to make scientists cringe. “This is one of those experiments that is too technical to describe,” he writes, adding “first there were some mixtures, or assays, and then the data was crunched digitally and the results came over the computer.” Even more frustrating, the book fails to provide references, an omission that makes it difficult for readers who do care about technical details to do their own research.

Yet Richtel’s refusal to get bogged down in minutiae also helps the book feel lighter than it otherwise might. The science isn’t a slog. And although it seems to jump haphazardly through time — Richtel returns to the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s again and again — the content is captivating and useful. For example, Richtel examines how we’re sabotaging our immune systems with too little sleep and too much stress, and explains why supplements designed to boost immunity are a waste of money.

But it’s when Richtel delves into the lives of Bob, Linda, Merredith and especially Jason that the writing shines. “Never was he happier than when he was driving, a dip of Skoal Fine Cut packed in his lip, rocking out to Springsteen or to a local station on the dial with some new town on the horizon,” Richtel writes about Jason. “He was a genuine American dreamer and the van his covered wagon.”

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