Chapter 6: The Immune System in Books


January, 2006

As immunology research has become one of the cutting-edge areas of scientific inquiry, many books have been published that depart from the traditional textbook model. These books aim to capture not only the historical significance and power of deadly diseases, but also the remarkable science behind our body’s defense system.

Fatal Sequence: The Killer Within 
This novel by Kevin Tracey, a neurosurgeon and immunologist, describes the case of a 1-year-old burn victim, Janice.

The following list sets out to describe a selection of books that include immunology among their themes and serve as additional sources for descriptions of diseases, what it is like to live with such diseases, and the battle against them that rages in the body and in the laboratory. This list is by no means exhaustive, but these readable books are a good place to begin your exploration of immunology.

How the Immune System Works

Second edition
By Lauren Sompayrac. Blackwell Publishers, 2003. $26.95 paperback, 100 pgs.

In this overview of the body’s immune functions, Sompayrac avoids the intricacies of the immune system and the exceptional phenomena that can sometimes occur and instead focuses on the big picture, providing the lay reader with a basic foundation in immunology.

The Chronic Illness Experience: Embracing the Imperfect Life

By Cheri Register. Hazeldon, 1999. $15.95 paperback, 400 pgs.

Drawing on her personal experience with chronic illness to examine its psychological and emotional elements, Register also discusses how the chronically ill go about living their lives. The book is a resource for anyone who suffers from a chronic disease or knows someone who does.

Plague Time: How Stealth Infections Cause Cancers, Heart Disease, and Other Deadly Ailments

By Paul W. Ewald. The Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, 2000. $25.00 hardcover, 288 pgs.

Ewald asserts that a wide variety of ailments, including breast cancer, diabetes, and schizophrenia, are caused, at least in part, by microbes. Further, he says that there is strong resistance to this idea within the medical community and that it is preventing progress in efforts to combat these diseases. The book highlights the potential importance of a better understanding of immunology as a field.

West Nile Story

By Dickson Despommier. Apple Trees Productions LLC, 2001. $23.95 hardcover, $14.95 paperback, 134 pgs.

In 1999, infection with the West Nile virus killed several people in New York City. Despommier describes these cases and discusses theories on the spreading of disease, including details about specific mosquito species and the migratory patterns of crows. The book helps explain an outbreak of a somewhat mysterious disease and also delves into the manner in which the virus moves through the population.

Timebomb: The Global Epidemic of Multi-Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis

By Lee B. Reichman with Janice Hopkins Tanne. McGraw Hill Companies, 2002. $24.95 hardcover, $15.95 paperback, 240 pgs.

Tuberculosis, a terror of the past and once thought to be near eradication, has recently experienced a rebirth of sorts. Reichman suggests that the seeds for a pandemic of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis are being sown in, among other places, Russia, where the disease is thriving. This epidemic is being worsened by the presence of HIV, which enhances TB’s impact. Timebomb provides an introduction to the science and history of the disease, as well as a review of current attempts to control its spread.

My Adventure with Lupus: Living with a Chronic Illness

By Robert L. Yocum. Griffin Publishing Group, 1995. $12.95 paperback, 172 pgs.

Yocum recounts his own experience with lupus. Since there is no cure for the disease, which inflames connective tissue in the body, living with lupus is a continuous battle. Yocum describes how lupus develops and suggests how best to cope with it.

The Eradication of Smallpox: Edward Jenner and the First and Only Eradication of a Human Infectious Disease

By Hervé Bazin. Academic Press, 2000. $58.95 hardcover, 246 pgs.

Bazin describes the history of smallpox, a disease that ravaged the world in the 1700s and 1800s, and examines the life of Edward Jenner, who first proposed “vaccination” with cowpox. He follows the fight against smallpox through its 1979 eradication and covers the debate about whether to maintain the stocks of smallpox virus in the United States and Russia.

When Plague Strikes: The Black Death, Smallpox, AIDS

By James Cross Giblin. HarperCollins, 1995. $14.95 hardcover, $8.95 paperback, 212 pgs.

Giblin compares the development and impact of the three diseases, starting with the bubonic plague of the fourteenth century. He also compares perceptions and treatment of victims of the diseases, citing similarities between the treatment of people living with AIDS and that of people who had plague and smallpox in previous centuries.

Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775–82

By Elizabeth Anne Fenn. Hill & Wang, 2001. $25.00 hardcover, $15.00 paperback, 370 pgs.

Fenn takes a close look at smallpox outbreaks during the Revolutionary War and describes General George Washington’s efforts to contain their spread. She also examines the results when these efforts were insufficient, including an analysis of the impact of the disease on the indigenous American population. The book is a case study in early epidemic response techniques. 

The Demon in the Freezer

By Richard Preston. Random House, 2002. $24.95 hardcover, $7.99 paperback, 240 pgs.

Smallpox, at one time a leading cause of death around the world, was eradicated in the twentieth century. Preston weighs the pros and cons of destroying the remaining stocks of smallpox virus. Some are worried that scientific testing involving the virus will set off a biological-weapons arms race. Others are concerned that if the stocks are destroyed, efforts to find a cure for the disease will be hampered.

The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story

By Richard Preston. Anchor, 1995. $7.99 paperback, 442 pgs.

In the winter of 1989 the Ebola virus—airborne, very contagious, and lethal to 90 percent of its victims—made an appearance in a primate laboratory in suburban Washington, D.C. Soldiers and scientists working at an army research facility worked feverishly and in secret to stop the out break. The Hot Zone gives a gripping account of the historical occurrence of rare and lethal viruses among humans.

Understanding Sjögren’s Syndrome

By Sue Dauphin. Pixel Press, 1993. $16.95 paperback, 245 pgs.

Dauphin provides a guide for people with Sjögren’s syndrome, an ailment the book refers to as the sneaky arthritis. She includes personal accounts from people with the syndrome, including her own story, and details its symptoms. 

SARS: A Case Study in Emerging Infections

Edited by Angela R. McLean, Robert M. May, John Pattison, and Robin A. Weiss. Oxford University Press, 2005. $99.50 hardcover, $39.95 paperback, 133 pgs.

The editors use the SARS outbreak of 2002 as a model for examining worldwide response capabilities in the face of infectious-disease epidemics. The authors look at issues of transglobal travel and isolation of infected people in an increasingly integrated world. Highlighting many global public health issues, the book offers a model for addressing future problems. 

Conquering Rheumatoid Arthritis: The Latest Breakthroughs and Treatments

By Thomas F. Lee. Prometheus Books, 2001. $22.00 paperback, 255 pgs.

Lee, who has worked on the Human Genome Project, provides the reader with an up-to-date account of research efforts to combat the autoimmune disease, including several molecular and gene-based therapies. He also explores the ethical implications for future human genome research. The book is a detailed look at a relatively prevalent autoimmune disorder.

Anna’s Story and New Effective Treatments for Rheumatoid Arthritis

By Richard Lyonharte. Buy Books on the web.com, 1999. $15.95 paperback, 153 pgs.

Lyonharte describes new treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, using the experience of his wife, Anna, as his example. Though many experimental treatments have managed to address only the symptoms of the disease and not the underlying condition, there have been some successes.


Multiple Sclerosis: The History of a Disease

By T. Jock Murray. Demos Medical Publishing, 2005. $29.95 paperback, 580 pgs.

Murray’s book outlining the history of multiple sclerosis is written for laypeople. It describes early cases from the days before MS was a defined disease and chronicles the development of the various treatments in use today. The book provides an overview of the disease and its past. 

The Malaria Capers: More Tales of Parasites and People, Research and Reality

By Robert S. Desowitz. W. W. Norton, 1991. $13.95 paperback, 288 pgs.

Desowitz cites the shortcomings of research as he explains worsening health and health systems, especially in poorer countries. He says a vaccine against malaria has not been found because of misrepresentation, poor use of funds, and blatant incompetence. 

The Miraculous Fever-Tree: Malaria and the Quest for a Cure That Changed the World

By Fiammetta Rocco. HarperCollins, 2003. $24.95 hardcover, $13.95 paperback, 348 pgs.

Rocco follows the intricate history of the tree from which quinine, the most common antidote to malaria, was produced. A native Kenyan who was infected with malaria as a child, she combines her experience with the history of quinine and its development as a medicine. 

The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History

By John M. Barry. Viking, 2004. $29.95 hardcover, $16.00 paperback, 546 pgs.

Barry provides a look at a global health crisis. He describes how the frequently mutating influenza virus, coupled with the world’s preoccupation with World War I, resulted in the influenza pandemic of 1918. The response from the scientific community laid the groundwork for the modern flu vaccine.

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It

By Gina Kolata. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999. $14.00 paperback, $20.95 hardcover large print, 330 pgs.

Kolata explains how the plague spread, examines its possible origins, and describes the search for a strain of the virus once science had advanced, making it possible to better investigate the virus. She also considers whether health officials today are prepared for a similar threat. 

The Swine Flu Affair: Decision-Making on a Slippery Disease

By Richard E. Neustadt and Harvey V. Fineberg. University Press of the Pacific, 2005. $27.50 paperback, 189 pgs.

In 1976, the U.S. government launched a nationwide vaccination campaign to respond to what it thought was a resurgence of the flu strain that caused the 1918 epidemic. The side effects patients suffered as a result of taking the vaccine caused some to sue the federal government for millions of dollars and now serve as a cautionary tale as the government addresses the prospect of new microbial threats.

The Widening Circle: A Lyme Disease Pioneer Tells Her Story

By Polly Murray. St. Martin’s Press, 1996. $23.95 hardcover, 321 pgs.

Murray and her family were some of the earliest people to develop Lyme disease, and here she tells the story of the effort to get a diagnosis from doctors who ranged from frustrated to disbelieving. The book gives a general idea of what any first victim of a disease might experience. 

Maneater: And Other True Stories of a Life in Infectious Disease

By Pamela Nagami, M.D. Renaissance Books, 2001. $24.95 hardcover, $13.95 paperback, 287 pgs.

Nagami, experienced in the field of infectious disease, describes some of the most dangerous microbial diseases in the world and where they can be found. She also highlights efforts by doctors to combat these diseases. The book illustrates how common dangerous microbes can be.

Living with Hepatitis C: A Survivor’s Guide

Third revised edition
By Gregory T. Everson and Hedy Weinberg. Hatherleigh Press, 1997.
$15.95 paperback, 274 pgs.

Nearly 4 million Americans are estimated to have hepatitis C, a viral infection that targets the liver. Everson and Weinberg provide much information about the disease, including means of transmission, how to avoid it, signs of abnormal liver function, and the latest in research. Their overview of the disease also suggests how to deal with it. 

Hepatitis C: The Silent Killer

By Carol Turkington. Contemporary Books, 1998. $15.95 paperback, 188 pgs.

Turkington describes for the general reader the potentially fatal illness hepatitis C, one of several related viral diseases that attack the liver. Doctors are still learning how best to treat the disease, and the author describes the current methods being used. 

E. coli 0157: The True Story of a Mother’s Battle with a Killer Microbe

By Mary Heersink. New Horizon Press, 1996. $22.95 hardcover, 303 pgs.

Heersink describes her son’s experience dealing with the severe illness he developed after eating an undercooked hamburger contaminated with drug-resistant E coli 0157. The child beats the sickness, but not before several of his organs are threatened by the bacterium. Heersink, who is not confident about the effectiveness of testing procedures for meat, has testified before Congress about the matter.

Commotion in the Blood: Life, Death, and the Immune System

By Stephen S. Hall. Henry Holt, 1997. $32.00 hardcover, $16.95 paperback, 544 pgs.

Hall traces the history of immune therapies for cancer, describing complex immunological processes in simpler terms for the lay reader. He is critical of making too much of research success and does not see a definite cure on the horizon.

At War Within: The Double-Edged Sword of Immunity

By William R. Clark. Oxford University Press, 1995. $42.00 hardcover, $18.95 paperback, 276 pgs.

Highlighting several threats to public health, including tuberculosis, AIDS, and allergies, Clark examines each in detail and describes the immune response. Among the varied reactions are those that end up harming the body: so-called autoimmune responses. Clark also provides a basic history of immunology. 

Tao of Immunology: A Revolutionary New Understanding of Our Body’s Defenses

By Marc Lappé. Plenum Press, 1997. $27.95 hardcover, $22.50 paperback, 317 pgs.

Lappé, a toxicologist, challenges the pop-culture approach of taking supplements to bolster the immune system, arguing that too strong an immune system can be harmful. He cites the numerous diseases in which the immune system attacks the body it is meant to protect. Essentially the book argues that artificially manipulating the immune system does more damage than good. 

Inside AIDS: HIV Attacks the Immune System

By Conrad J. Storad. Lerner Publications Co., 1998. $27.93 hardcover, 96 pgs.

The book (current through 1997) describes how HIV is transmitted, how it infiltrates the human immune system, and its subsequent effect on the body. Storad focuses on the scientific and microbial level rather than the public health level, though he does discuss methods for preventing the spread of the disease. Storad also offers a history of AIDS, beginning in the early 1980s. 

Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures

By Carl Zimmer. Free Press, 2000. $26.00 hardcover, $14.00 paperback, 298 pgs.

Zimmer reviews the history of the study of parasites, starting with discoveries made in the nineteenth century about their strange life cycles. He discusses how parasites travel from one host to another, and the battle the immune system wages against them, concluding with a look at the role of parasites in human medicine and agriculture.

Typhoid Mary

By Judith Walzer Leavitt. Beacon Press, 1996. $25.00 hardcover, $19.00 paperback, 331 pgs.

Mary Mallon, 36, was an Irish immigrant who made her living as a cook for wealthy New York City families until she was seized by health department officers and forced to live out her days on an island. The reason: she carried typhoid fever and had unknowingly infected twenty-two others. Leavitt examines the stigmatization of people who unknowingly threaten the health of others. 

The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance

By Laurie Garrett. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994. $25.00 hardcover, $17.00 paperback, 750 pgs.

Garrett documents the history of global epidemics while introducing her reader to new, increasingly threatening diseases. In this telling investigation, she explores the effects of social development on ecosystems, suggesting that these disruptions may be the cause for the spread and creation of infectious diseases. Garrett concludes with a sobering proposal, calling for the creation of a global early warning system that would bolster detection in an effort to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

The Immune System on Stage and Screen

Several plays and movies have focused on topics related to the immune system. One of the best known in recent years is Rent, a musical about a group of impoverished young artists and musicians struggling to survive under the shadow of AIDS. Rent is based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème, in which tuberculosis affected the characters.

Immune diseases have appeared in movies and on television, too. The first major American film to address AIDS was Philadelphia, in 1993.Two years later, Outbreak featured researchers trying to find an antidote to a deadly virus that made its way to the United States. More recently, the television series House centers on an unsympathetic but brilliant doctor who solves infectious-disease cases; one of his colleagues is an immunologist.