In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Kampf der Zellen: Die Enstehung der Immunologie im Wissenschaftsdreieck. Russland, Deutschland, Frankreich by Oxana Kosenko
  • Arthur M. Silverstein
Oxana Kosenko. Kampf der Zellen: Die Enstehung der Immunologie im Wissenschaftsdreieck. Russland, Deutschland, Frankreich. Leipzig: Sachsische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig, 2015. €44.70 (978-3-8440-3574-2).

This is a book about the development of Ilya Metchnikoff’s theories about the evolutionary origins of phagocytic cells and their immunological functions in protecting the body against infectious disease agents, and about the disputes that these concepts engendered. It is the seventeenth contribution to a series sponsored by the Saxony Academy of Science in Leipzig, devoted to the nineteenth-century scientific connections between Germany and Russia in the fields of chemistry, pharmacy, and medicine. Given that the present subject involves the immunology of the 1880s and 1890s, the France of Louis Pasteur had perforce to be included in the story.

Despite the fact that Metchnikoff spent most of his scientific life outside of Russia—he worked for over twenty-five years at the Pasteur Institute in Paris—he has become something of a hero, first to Soviet and more recently to Russian science. Most of what has come down to the present day about Metchnikoff involves his epic battles on behalf of his phagocytic theory of immunity; the main opponent was Paul Ehrlich, whose theories were based upon the role of circulating antibodies. It was “cellularism versus humoralism” or, put another way, biology versus chemistry. What is especially interesting about this book is that the author treats all such disputes (and there were several), not so much as the battle between differing theoretical interpretations of data, but rather in terms of an almost predetermined contest between different Denkkollektivs (groups sharing the same conceptual approach) practicing their respective Denkstils (stylistic approaches), following in the footsteps of Ludwik Fleck. [End Page 342]

The author suggests at the outset that Western historians, without access to the original Russian literature, might have a one-sided view of the dispute. She therefore includes detailed discussions of the state of contemporary Russian zoological and medical science, and of the mentors (mostly in Germany and France) who trained the scientists who contributed to the dispute, this to help define the allegiances of the participants. Even more useful in defining positions are the many letters included—exchanges between Metchnikoff and his assistants as well as his Western colleagues.

There were actually three different levels of dispute stimulated by Metchnikoff’s developing theories. The first was purely embryological. Based upon the “Eureka story” of the response of the starfish to the rose thorn, Metchnikoff the Darwinian proposed that the wandering phagocytes (literally, “eating cells”) had evolved from antecedents involved in digestion. This was opposed automatically by the anti-Darwinists as well as by those who just did not believe the supposition. The second dispute involved the pathologists, for Metchnikoff not only assigned to phagocytes the ability to ingest and digest dangerous bacteria, but also suggested that they participated in a beneficial inflammatory response, and that the spleen played a role in protection as well. This was widely contested; these large white blood cells were widely held to help spread infection, inflammation was thought to be a destructive process, and no one had understood the function of the spleen.

But the most significant arguments involved the assignment of phagocyte as the principal player in the immune response. In the 1880s, no one understood how Pasteurian immunizations worked to protect against disease, and many were loath to assign this role to the miniscule phagocyte. But when in 1890 Behring and Kitasato discovered blood-borne antibodies, the battle was really joined. Proto-immunologists committed themselves either to cells or to those humoral substances, and each acted as though it were an all-or-none situation. In the end, both Metchnikoff and Ehrlich shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1908, although a full explanation of the contributions of the two main factors would take yet another sixty to seventy years.

This book is a valuable addition to the Metchnikoff story, in that it tells more about his early days, about the details of many of the minor actors, and about...