Ada Lovelace Day: Polly Matzinger and the Rhetoric of Immunology

Happy Ada Lovelace Day, folks! The Finding Ada site will have a post roundup, Limor Fried at the adafruit industries blog started doing one post an hour at midnight, and the Twitter hashtag is #ADA11. If you write a post, do please leave a link to it here in this thread as well adding it to the stories at You do have to register, but that only takes a couple of minutes.

I sat by the snow-stained window of a conference room at Major Research University in Pennsylvania, drinking bitter coffee from a styrofoam cup while the residents and scientists around me bragged about their sleep deficits. Our department was refining a grant proposal to address inflammation in the digestive system. They had invited an immunologist from the National Institutes of Health to consult. At 8AM, the snow finally stopped. It seems now like I felt the air transmit an at-home-anywhere ease familiar to me as a native Californian even before I turned from the window and saw Dr. Polly Matzinger walk in, but that can't be right.

Polly Matzinger had been a cocktail waitress in Davis, CA. But the scientists talking shop while she served drinks got her thinking. She started asking questions, went back to school, and earned her Ph.D. in 1979. Now, more than thirty years later, she directs an immunology research lab at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Her lab is nicknamed "The Ghost Lab", because it stood empty for the first few months, while Matzinger brushed up on chaos theory.

At the head of our conference table, Dr. Matzinger slipped off her black cowboy boots, folded herself into a lotus, and told us about how watching her sheepdogs back in Davis gave her an idea that changed the field of immunology.

Her dogs barked at some strangers who came by, but not at others. They were responding not to strangeness, she realized, but to perceived danger. Dr. Matzinger’s “danger model” breaks from the traditional self-versus-other narrative of immunology.

For a century, science has used military imagery to conceptualize the immune system with tales of heroic cells conquering stealthy foreign invaders. But Matzinger realized that immune cells are more like sheepdogs than border patrol guards: they respond to proteins they deem potentially harmful, regardless of foreignness.

Stories have power in science. There is a story, a narrative, at the heart of each scientific hypothesis. The rhetoric of our culture influences which stories we tell and therefore which ideas occur to us.

The popular immunology rhetoric of wars, sentinels, foreign invaders, and moral and ethnic impurity influence which scientific hypotheses form. Moreover, this rhetoric affects how researchers and society in general respond to diseases such as AIDS and cancer. But Matzinger’s danger model is changing the direction of immunology research by re-conceiving the narrative around how our bodies protect themselves.

Further Reading (below the fold in most browsers):

About Matzinger:

The Danger Model: A Renewed Sense of Self, by Polly Matzinger. (originally published in the journal Science)

THE REAL FUNCTION OF THE IMMUNE SYSTEM or TOLERANCE AND THE FOUR D's (danger, death, destruction and distress), by Polly Matzinger

A Conversation With Polly Matzinger; Blazing an Unconventional Trail to a New Theory of Immunity, by Claudia Dreifus

On the rhetoric of immunology:

Behind a subscription wall (if you have access to a library with a JSTOR subscription, you should be able to download it):
Toward an Anthropology of Immunology: The Body as Nation State.
Emily Martin, Medical Anthropology Quarterly
New Series, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Dec., 1990), pp. 410-426

Stefan Helmreich: Flexible Infections: Computer Viruses, Human Bodies, Nation-States, Evolutionary Capitalism (PDF)

Flexible Bodies: tracking immunity in American culture from the days of Polio to the age of AIDS, by Emily Martin

Illness as metaphor ; and, AIDS and its metaphors By Susan Sontag

On the research:

David C. Holzman, New Data Cheer Champions of the Danger Theory, JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst (2010) 102 (2): 76-78.

Oxford University Press Online Resource Center: Videos of leading immunologists

NIAID's Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Immunology

(Behind a subscription wall): Polly Matzinger and Tirumalai Kamala, Tissue-based class control: the other side of tolerance Nature Reviews Immunology 11, 221-230 (March 2011)

Previous ALD posts: Happy Ada Lovelace Day: Telling Our Stories; Happy Ada Lovelace Day; Ada Lovelace Day

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