There is a book that has been in national circulation at a number of academic institutions at least since 2003, entitled How the Immune System Works (2nd edition). It came across my attention a few months ago when a friend using it to study for our microbiology exam pointed out that the book uses “Iranian terrorists” attacking the US as an analogy for the body’s immune response. Needless to say, I was upset at what I felt to be an insulting and callous treatment of my background, especially in a book where there was absolutely no need to associate a particular nationality with terrorism to make a point about cytokines and antigen presenting cells. I wrote a letter to the publisher more than a week ago, which I have included in the text of this article. I have not received word from the publisher since I sent out my letter. However, after I shared my concerns with course faculty last semester, a letter objecting to the passage was written to the publisher, the author’s address was requested for further contact, and the edition in question was removed from our list of required and recommended reading for the Microbiology/Immunology course at UMDNJ- RW Johnson Medical School.
Please take the time to read the passage. I am of the opinion that comments such as these have no place in a medical text. If you, your peers, or your organization also feel this way, make your voices heard: write to the publishing company and/or author, as well as your own institution, which very well may be circulating this book, due to its great popularity as a study guide and reference. The mailing address of the publishing company is:
Blackwell Publishing, Inc.
350 Main Street
Malden, Massachusetts 02148-5018
The letter, citation, and passage is included below:
To Whom It May Concern:
I am writing to express my shock and sincere disappointment upon reading a passage from the Blackwell Publishing, Inc. book entitled How the Immune System Works, by Dr. Lauren Sompayrac. This book, which until recently was required reading by the Department of Molecular Genetics, Microbiology, and Immunology at my academic institution (UMDNJ- Robert Wood Johnson Medical School), contains a passage which to me seems both unnecessary and unacceptable in any context, let alone within a book about the immune system.
The passage, located on page 49 of the 2nd edition, analogizes the response of the immune system to pathogens, to how the Defense Department would react “to a threat to our national security”, comparing would-be pathogens to “Iranian terrorists” who would potentially “fire on one of our embassies” here in the United States.
To me, this analogy is inappropriate, and, in the context of when it was written (2003), insensitive towards the very real possibility of potential conflict between the governments of the US and Iran. I personally am taken aback and hurt by the analogy; I also feel like people of my background are being unfairly singled out and misrepresented as a threat to US security. During a time when the word “terrorist” signifies the embodiment of evil for most Americans, I am sure that upon reading this passage, many current and future health professionals of Iranian descent (who comprise a significant readership of this book) would feel similarly.
Iranian and Iranian-American health professionals today continue a hallowed and world-renowned medical tradition that has greatly contributed to the corpus of knowledge that modern medicine relies upon. We also pride ourselves on a rich history of multiculturalism, tolerance, and education, and are exponentially more likely to be among the communities of physicians, businessmen, lawyers, scientists, poets, engineers, artists, writers, policymakers, and humanitarians here in the US and worldwide, than we are to be terrorists.
Due to this passage, this book’s dissemination in the medical establishment is bound to disappoint and offend not only students and staff of Iranian descent in the medical profession, who are substantial in number and present at almost every medical school in this nation, but all Iranians, health professionals, and anybody who values professionalism and the right to be represented with dignity. I urge both the author and the publishing company to remove these hurtful words from future texts.
MS I – Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
P.S. The citation and passage are included below:
Sompayrac, Lauren. How the Immune System Works. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, Inc. 2003.
The fact that battle cytokines such as TNF trigger the migration of DCs to a lymph node also makes perfect sense. After all, you want DCs to travel and present antigen only if a battle is on.
When our Defense Department reacts to a threat to our national security, it follows the 'principle of proportional response.' For instance, if Iranian terrorists were to fire on one of our embassies, we wouldn't start dropping atom bombs on Iran. No, we would respond in a way that was more appropriate to such a limited threat. Likewise, it is important that the magnitude of an immune response be in proportion to the seriousness of the attack.