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History Of Immunology

No one knows when humans first noticed that they are better at fighting a disease the second time they get it; Chinese documents from 5,000 B.C. mention the fact. In 430 B.C., the Greek historian Thucydides (?-411 B.C.) mentioned the great plague that swept through Athens, and how those who survived it (including Thucydides himself) could tend to the sick without worrying about catching it again.

But the beginnings of our understanding of immunity date to 1798, when the English physician Edward Jenner (1749-1823) published a report that people could be protected from deadly smallpox by sticking them with a needle dipped in the pus from a cowpox boil. The great French biologist and chemist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) theorized that such immunization protects people against disease by exposing them to a version of a microbe that is harmless but is enough like the disease-causing organism, or pathogen, that the immune system learns to fight it. Modern vaccines against diseases such as measles, polio, and chicken pox are based on this principle.

In the late nineteenth century, a scientific debate was waged between the German physician Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915) and the Russian zoologist Elie Metchnikoff (1845-1916). Ehrlich and his followers believed that proteins in the blood, called antibodies, eliminated pathogens by sticking to them; this phenomenon became known as humoral immunity. Metchnikoff and his students, on the other hand, noted that certain white blood cells could engulf and digest foreign materials: this cellular immunity, they claimed, was the real way the body fought infection.

Modern immunologists have shown that both the humoral and cellular responses play a role in fighting disease. They have also identified many of the actors and processes that form the immune response.

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