He put the Id in Idiotype

Jonathan W Yewdell

Author Affiliations

  • Jonathan W Yewdell, 1 Laboratory of Viral Diseases, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Bethesda, Maryland, USA

Science As Autobiography

The Troubled Life of Niels Jerne

by Thomas Söderqvist

Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, USA

384 pages, US $40.00

ISBN 0 300 09441 8

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What is the point of a biography? For sure, there are the practical aspects. Writers have to make their way in the world. Readers are naturally curious about famous individuals, particularly those in the same line of work, who usually provide more than their fair share of schadenfreude. Thomas Söderqvist, chair of the Department of History of Medicine at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, aims higher than this, however; in portraying the life of Niels Kaj Jerne (1911–1994) he hopes to “provide food for ethical reflection for readers in the centres of technoscience who are asking the perennial questions: what is good, what is bad and what constitutes a flourishing life?”

As food for ethical reflection, Jerne provides quite a banquet. Tellingly, he saved virtually all his correspondence and manuscript drafts since his school days in anticipation of recounting his glorious life to lesser beings. Söderqvist interviewed Jerne extensively (160 hours of recorded conversations) over several years, and was given complete access to Jerne's papers, which were donated to the Danish Royal Library on his death in 1994.

Jerne was born in England of Danish mercantile parents, and was raised and educated in the Netherlands (Dutch was his preferred language). Although a brilliant student, Jerne had great difficulty in finding his way in life, working for several years at a banana company before studying physics at the University of Leiden. After graduation, he spent 13 years of intermittent effort—including a stint helping his father devise a better process for curing bacon—working towards his medical degree. During this time, Jerne fathered two sons by the first of his three wives, a talented painter whose troubled relationship with Jerne contributed to her suicide at the age of 35, around the time of Jerne's graduation from medical school. As later wives were also to learn, Jerne was incapable of marital fidelity. His second wife (whose existence Jerne rarely acknowledged) was more or less treated as a servant/nanny, who raised his children at a comfortable geographical distance. Jerne was no Adonis and was always struggling financially to maintain the urbane lifestyle to which he aspired. Presumably, his liaisons were the result of his considerable charm as a conversationalist and his skills in the arts of love, in which he displayed a penchant for sadism.

There's no mistaking Jerne's scientific charisma, which was based on the easy‐going persona he presented to the world, his keen intelligence and a broad knowledge of culture and philosophy. Jerne was not much of a bench scientist, and he clearly did not enjoy experimental work. At one point, he found it difficult to perform experiments due to the uncertainties in the accuracy of pipetting. I would guess that a typical graduate student performs more experiments in a single year than Jerne managed over the course of his career. Predictably, he made very few discoveries.

So why is Jerne worthy of a biography? He did happen to win the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1984, “for theories concerning the specificity in development and control of the immune system”. Well, what of these theories? His first major impact in immunology was his “natural selection theory of immunology”, which basically resurrected (without citation) Ehrlich's side‐chain theory proposed 50 years earlier. The importance of this theory was in moving immunology away from ‘instructive’ theories of antigens directing the folding of antibodies, which was championed by Linus Pauling, among others. However, Jerne was missing the crucial clonal selection element proposed first by David Talmage and then by Frank McFarlane Burnet, who developed the most comprehensive theory of clonal selection and somatic mutation. Although Jerne correctly surmized that antibody specificity was determined by its inherent properties and was not influenced by antigens, his scheme for antigen induction of specific antibodies was implausible. He should have known better: through fortunate circumstances he was part of the ’phage group' and his colleagues included Max Delbrück and James Watson, who with typical directness reportedly told Jerne that his theory “stinks”.

Jerne is best known to contemporary immunologists for the network theory, cited as his most important by the Nobel committee. The network theory posits that antibodies respond primarily to each other and that foreign antigens merely perturb the normal equilibrium established between ‘idiotypes’—the term given to individual antibodies by Jacques Oudin who, along with Henry Kunkel, first showed that individual antibodies had unique antigenic regions. The network theory captured the hearts and minds of many immunologists who laboured mightily to find evidence to support it. This era, which lasted for more than a decade, coincided with parallel attempts to demonstrate the suppressor–contrasuppressor–contracontrasuppressor network (ad infinitum) for T cells that was promulgated by Richard Gershon. This represented a dark age for immunology, which only recovered when molecular genetics led to the cloning of important immune molecules and to the return of immunology to experimental terra firma. Mel Cohn, one of the few to note the “emperor's state of undress”, termed the network theory absurd, because it could not be tested. Years before, Delbrück had warned Jerne about the dangers of theoretical biology “We have both seen the grand idolatry of intuition run his course. If anything, this is of the Devil” (ouch!).

At the end of the day, Jerne‘s most lasting contributions, ironically, were due to his considerable organizational skills, perhaps a remnant of his mercantile career. During a six‐year tenure at the World Health Organization he had an important role in standardizing biologics and in organizing the world immunological community. His greatest achievement was in establishing the Basel Institute of Immunology, where he was director for ten years, developing an unparalleled environment for creative research and giving wings to many of today's leading immunologists.

Söderqvist's hard work in uncovering this narrative is evident, and he has done an admirable job in describing Jerne's science and putting it into the context of its era. In bringing Jerne's multifaceted personality and career to life, Söderqvist succeeds completely in providing food for thought on what it means to live a worthy scientific and personal life, and how it is that scientific ‘stars’ are formed.

Jonathan W Yewdell is at the Laboratory of Viral Diseases, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Bethesda, Maryland, USA. E‐mail: jyewdell{at}