Immune balance: the development of the idea and its applications

J Hist Biol. Fall 2014;47(3):411-42.


It has long been taken for granted that the immune system’s capacity to protect an individual from infection and disease depends on the power of the system to distinguish between self and nonself. However, accumulating data have undermined this fundamental concept. Evidence against the self/nonself discrimination model left researchers in need of a new overarching framework able to capture the immune system’s reactivity. Here, I highlight that along with the self/nonself model, another powerful representation of the immune system’s reactivity has been developed in the twentieth century immunology. According to this alternative view, the immune system is not a killer of nonself strangers but a peace-maker helping to establish harmony with the environment. The balance view of the system has never become part of the dominant paradigm. However, it is gaining more and more currency as new research develops. Advances in mucosal immunology confirm that instead of distinguishing between self and foreign the immune system reacts to microbial, chemical and self-induced alterations to produce responses that counterbalance effects of these changes.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Allergy and Immunology / history*
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Immune System / physiology*
  • Immune Tolerance*