Uninfected by the opposition

Species and Specificity
June 21, 1996

This is the story of a controversy that raged for 100 years through the genesis of the science of immunology. The players are successive generations of scientists, each student adopting the language and thought of his mentor even though the content of their exchanges evolved with the nature of their investigations. The argument is between lumpers and splitters. Pauline Mazumdar calls them unitarians and pluralists or field and class theorists. On the one hand are individuals who are speculative and always on the watch for unity, and on the other, there are those who are more empirical and who constantly endeavour to differentiate nature.

The lines are drawn with a portrait of Karl von Naegeli, who operated through the ascendancy of Linnaean botany. Naegeli would mock the pluralists; one gets the impression that he thought them stupid. He was an adherent to a law of continuity in nature and his arch-pponent was Ferdinand Cohn, who applied the Linnaean rules of classification to bacteria. The argument was about whether bacteria could be classified as individual species or were seamless and could be transformed from one species into another by changing the conditions of culture. Robert Koch was Cohn's most prestigious student and he was able to show quite clearly that if he used pure cultures of bacteria there was a strict one-to-one relationship between an organism and its disease. The transmutation phenomenon turned out to be a consequence of a mixture of different organisms in the same culture flasks. Koch's side gained tempo. His most famous student Paul Ehrlich is one of the fathers of modern immunology. Ehrlich's appointees ultimately filled the German scientific establishment.

The way that cultural assumptions covertly infiltrate science has been the subject of much debate. Mazumdar echoes this idea most profoundly in her description of the power of the Koch-Ehrlich axis, which was simultaneous with the rise of nationalism in Germany. Her caveat is simple. Science is not and never can be conducted in an apolitical vacuum.

Both sides seemed to be as concerned with defeating their enemy as understanding a problem. Facts were not seen as dormant and waiting to be uncovered, rather, each party would call on nature as a witness to prove the authenticity of their doctrine. Mazumdar suggests that science is no different to other cultural activities in that an intellectual patterning is passed from teacher to student. The arguments are rehearsed in the scientific literature, but the flavour and the real power of the controversy is apparent in the descriptions of the scientific meetings where evidence was shown and experiments were demonstrated.

There are four acts to this drama. The climax to the story centres on Karl Landsteiner, Nobel prizewinner and champion of the fourth generation of the unitarians. The specificity argument had moved on from bacteria to antibodies but the rules remained the same. Landsteiner's didactic and autocratic nature ought to make him an unsympathetic character. But Mazumdar describes his life with almost tender care. The hardships he endured from being outside the protected circle of the dominant group and his lack of career progress coupled with the whiff of anti-Semitism paint the picture of a victim genius. Landsteiner was apparently never satisfied with his work, though he did much to confound the central dogma of the Ehrlich group.

Landsteiner's first encounter with Al Weiner gives a clue his nature. He was protective about the primacy of his work in discovering the ABO blood group system and Weiner had published a review which Landsteiner did not feel was adequate in its attribution of priority. Weiner was summoned to the great man's office and delivered of a berating that he apparently never forgot. But Weiner was not offended. Indeed, the interview was the stimulus to a lifelong obeisance. Weiner took up the mantle for the unitarians for the final confrontation which was about neither bacteria nor antibodies. To find out what happened you will have to read this fascinating book.

Richard A. Lake is a research fellow in immunology, Queen Elizabeth II Medical Centre, Perth, Australia.

Species and Specificity: An Interpretation of the History of Immunology

Author - Pauline M. H. Mazumdar
ISBN - 0 521 43172 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 457

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