If you are even slightly curious about the immune system or about science in action, pick up The Compatibility Gene by Daniel M. Davis. The book gives a good, thorough overview of the history of studying the immune system, what we understand about the immune system now, and the people who worked to gain that understanding.
Davis is adept at providing brief snapshots of the people who worked, often in teams, on puzzling out the immune system in all its glory. They include people like Peter Medwar, about whom no one says anything bad, and Don Wiley, who mysteriously disappeared right after a party, puzzling everyone. These quick character studies make The Compatibility Gene a view into the laboratories and lives of the scientists as well as an informative book about the immune system. Thus, it gives readers some insight into the way science works. It is not just the method, it is also the people involved. Discoveries came through work as varied as Pamela Bjorkkman’s years’ long, painstaking study of the structure of the a single protein and Terasaki and Bluestone’s decision that the control group in their study was far more interesting than the subject they initially intended to cover.
The study of the immune system is a study of compatibility: How does the body differentiate between self and non-self? How does it know what to attack and what to nourish? The answers we have are fascinating and complex with still more to uncover. Davis’ last chapter covers current theories of how the immune system works while pointing out that these may well change; there is a base understanding, but also plenty of room for disagreement and discovery.
The book is thoroughly grounded in good research and a thorough understanding of the subject. A look at the notes shows a varied and extensive range of sources. Davis himself is currently a Professor of Immunology at the University of Manchester. In addition, he has called on a wide array of resources, including personal interviews, medical journals, and books.
While one might expect a dry and difficult book, The Compatibility Gene is highly readable and excellent all around. You’ll come away knowing more about the immune system and about good writing as well.
The Compatibility Geneis available now.
Suggested pairing: Why Aren’t We Dead Yet? by Idan Ben-Barak which you can order on Amazon