- Species and Specificity: An Interpretation of the History of Immunology
This is a detailed history, focused especially on the first three decades of this century, of the origins and development of serology. It is neither a comprehensive history of immunology encompassing its various disciplinary branches, as the subtitle of the work seems to suggest, nor an attempt to examine the settings of clinical medicine and of basic or cellular biology that adjoined the developments of immunology. Mazumdar presents her narrative of immunochemistry from a very specific interpretive angle: its thesis is that immunochemistry, and more particularly serology, grew from two antagonistic conceptions of biology originating in the nineteenth century. She expresses this as the divide between a focus on species —seeking manifestations of unity and continuity in the biosphere—and on specificity —finding discontinuity and heterogeneity in living processes. Early immunologists and their intellectual progeny, she argues, inherited this antagonistic pattern, resulting in decades of vociferous debate. Thus Paul Ehrlich, who [End Page 171] viewed immunity as based on highly specific amboreceptors (antibody) interacting stereochemically with antigen, is classed in the “specificity” group; Karl Landsteiner, on the other hand, is placed in the opposite camp of “species,” for advocating, as a colloid chemist, the nonabsolute specificity of immune reactions.
Tracing the genealogy and developments of these schools serves as the basic structure of Mazumdar’s story. In the process, we are treated to detailed biographical examinations of the key protagonists and solid scholarship in the history of the ideas of a particular era of immunology. The work offers a provocative perspective, bound to capture the interest of readers, whether or not they are ultimately convinced by her argument. Further, it is a highly detailed, scholarly account, addressed to a biologically sophisticated audience, preferably with some solid background in immunology. Finally, Species and Specificity is a rich history of scientists as persons; the examination of their public personae and interpersonal rivalries at times dominates the narrative, so that one feels that perhaps the book might have been better subtitled “A History of Nastiness.” But of course, in this antipositivist age, we appreciate histories of science that contextualize and bring to life the actors as fully as possible. On a psychological level, Mazumdar has taken this task to heart—but as with much psychohistory, one may close the book wondering what tales have been spun, and why.
While this is an important contribution, Mazumdar’s reading is open to critical scrutiny. Readers who are suspicious of simple polarities of complex historical developments might justifiably look askance at the dichotomy that she erects. Importantly, the question is why she places so much emphasis on personal divisiveness, when conceptual tensions lead just as often to harmonious syntheses. The turn-of-the-century dispute between Elie Metchnikoff’s cellular school and Ehrlich’s immunochemical tradition—a dispute that Mazumdar barely mentions—precisely illustrates this point. Developments later in immunology showed that their respective approaches were essentially complementary. Another telling indication of the limits of the narrative’s dichotomous framework is that it misses the lesson of an irony of Landsteiner’s work, which ultimately propelled the specificity program rather than hindered it. As Arthur Silverstein has noted, “despite his continuing emphasis upon cross -reactions [i.e., nonspecific antibody-antigen interactions], it was Landsteiner’s work that helped convince the world of the elegance and narrow precision of immunological specificity.” 1 By focusing solely on Landsteiner’s own view of his research, Mazumdar fails to explore fully how his work ultimately supported the opposing school. The dialectics of the history are thereby lost. Despite our own reservations in this regard, Mazumdar has offered a provocative and erudite history of serology that adds a critical chapter to the growing historical examination of immunology.
1. Arthur M. Silverstein, A History of Immunology (San Diego: Academic Press, 1989), p. 110.