Welcome: by the Principal of Kings College London: Professor Sir Rick Trainor, KBE

Title: Becoming Autoimmune: Immunological Histories of the Modern Self

Speaker: Warwick Anderson, University of Sydney

Abstract: Becoming Autoimmune? The ‘Self’ of Immunological Theory and the ‘Self’ of Chronic Disease

While Macfarlane Burnet and others were elaborating on the idea of the immune ‘self’, patients with autoimmune diseases were doing their own ‘biographical work’, tending to the self of chronic illness experience. Burnet was aware that any theory of antibody production must explain pathologies of immunity such as autoimmune disease, where the body mounts an immunological response to its own tissues, responding to self as though it were not self. Certainly, clinical immunologists came to see autoimmune disease as the pathology of self-recognition. But through the 1960s and 1970s, the clinical hegemony of the immune self was limited. Patients with definite or putative autoimmune diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and chronic active hepatitis, to name just a few, rarely imagined their illness as a form of immunological hyper-reactivity or sensitivity to self. Yet at the same time, they were engaged in a related form of biographical work, incited by the experience of chronic illness. For many, chronic illness found expression in a language of loss—in particular, the loss of self—a language more meaningful and profound, if less elegant conceptually, than the discourse of self and not-self articulated in immunology. While clinical immunologists sought to restore the integrity of the body, to lessen reactivity to self, through suppressing immune responses, patients tried through social means to restore a sense of self, to reclaim or reconstitute a self displaced by chronic illness and disability. There was thus a congruence of thought styles between immunologists and sufferers of chronic illness, with both groups favouring a physiological rather than an ontological mode—without apparent intellectual contact. Using Burnet’s archive and selections from patient records and literary studies, I will discuss the pathos of these uncoordinated selfs in the 1960s and 1970s.


Warwick Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Professor in the Department of History and the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine at the University of Sydney. Previously, he taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, UCSF, UC-Berkeley, the University of Melbourne, and Harvard University. His books include The Cultivation of Whiteness: Science, Health and Racial Destiny in Australia (Melbourne 2002; Duke 2006); Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines (Duke 2006; Ateneo de Manila 2007); and The Collectors of Lost Souls: Turning Kuru Scientists into Whitemen (Johns Hopkins 2008), which was awarded the William H. Welch Medal of the American Association of the History of Medicine (2010), and the Ludwik Fleck Award of the Society for Social Studies of Science (2010). With Deborah Jenson and Richard C. Keller he edited Unconscious Dominions: Psychoanalysis, Colonial Trauma, and Global Sovereignties (Duke 2011). He is currently completing (with Ian R. Mackay) a book on the conceptual history of autoimmunity, Intolerant Bodies: A Short History of Autoimmunity (Johns Hopkins, 2014).

A collaborative Kings College London event by the Centre for the Humanities and Health and Centre for Science, Technology and Medicine with special thanks to the Department of History for support.

  • 5pm – 6.30pm
  • Anatomy Lecture Theatre (K6.29), Strand Campus, London
  • Followed by a Drinks Reception 6.30pm – 8.00pm, Anatomy Museum


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