The Immune System in Human Milk: A Historic Perspective

Ann Nutr Metab. 2021;77(4):189-196. doi: 10.1159/000516995. Epub 2021 Jul 15.


Background: Human milk contains a remarkable array of immunological agents that evolved over millions of years to protect the recipient human infant. Furthermore, much of the protection persists long after weaning. However, the scientists who first discovered some components of this immune system have rarely been acknowledged.

Summary: The scientists who made many fundamental immunological discoveries concerning the immune system in human milk include Alfred François Donné, Paul Ehrlich, Lars Å. Hanson, and Jules Bordet. Based upon their discoveries, a wealth of antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulating agents, and living, activated leukocytes in human milk were later revealed during the last half of the 20th and the first part of the 21st century. Moreover, it was found that human milk enhances the colonization of commensal bacteria that aid to protect the human infant. Key Message: Their discoveries helped to revitalize breastfeeding in industrialized countries during the past several decades.

Keywords: Human milk; Immunity; Medical history.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research / history*
  • Breast Feeding*
  • Female
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Immune System*
  • Infant
  • Milk, Human / immunology*