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An inspiring and wonderful read. ... I highly recommend this extraordinary book.”

– Douglas Preston, #1 bestselling author of The Lost City of the Monkey God



A cancer patient risen from the grave. An HIV patient considered a medical marvel. Two “invisible” women suffering the frustration and pain of autoimmunity. Richtel uses the stories of these four people to tell the incredible story of the human immune system.  In this vivid narrative, Richtel builds on his acclaimed stories on immunotherapy in the New York Times, combining the latest science with interviews and engaging anecdotes from the world’s leading researchers to reveal how the body marshals its forces to fight bacteria, viruses, parasites, and tumors. He also explains how, sometimes, this wondrous system that is our first line of defense can become a threat, attacking our organs and other systems. While modern life has freed us from many of the diseases that plagued humans in the past, it also puts unprecedented stress on the very system that keeps us healthy. The result has been an explosion of autoimmune disorders.


Providing a clear look at the forces that drive survival and the body’s evolutionary history, Richtel details how immunologists are advancing medical breakthroughs; illuminates the close connection between the immune system and mental health, beauty, and weight; examines the latest findings about diet and nutrition on immunity; and offers us a glimpse of a future in which we lead longer, more comfortable lives. He also warns that we are weakening the system that protects us: rather than trusting the bodies’ natural defenses, many people turn to antibacterial soaps, immune boosters, and other products, resulting in the development of dangerous drug-resistant microbes that threaten health. An Elegant Defense is the first work of popular science to look at this vital human system that is as complex and intricate as the brain yet remains widely misunderstood. Joining the ranks of The Emperor of All Maladies and I Contain Multitudes, An Elegant Defense is an exhilarating and wondrous exploration of the immune system that transforms our knowledge of the human body and offers advice to help improve wellness.


Hardcover: 448 pages

Publisher: William Morrow (March 12, 2019)

ISBN-10: 0062698532

ISBN-13: 978-0062698537


“Richtel approaches this essential subject with awe, his writing meticulous and empathic.” 

Booklist (Starred Review)

"Richtel illuminates a complex subject so well that even physicians will learn."

– Kirkus (Starred Review)


“A hard-to-put-down account of the body’s first line of defense.”

– Publisher’s Weekly

“One of those rare nonfiction books that transcends the genre. ... A fascinating and engrossing account of the latest, and quite astonishing, discoveries involving the human immune system. ... An inspiring and wonderful read. ... I highly recommend this extraordinary book.”

– Douglas Preston, #1 bestselling author of The Lost City of the Monkey God

“A thorough, richly entertaining and just-wonky-enough beginner’s class in immunology through the case studies of four patients.”

Wall Street Journal

“Matt Richtel’s An Elegant Defense is a comprehensive and engaging primer on the ‘ever-vigilant, omnipresent peacekeeping force in the Festival of Life.’ The immune system plays an essential role in fighting infections and cancer and in regulating our normal health. Read this superb book to better understand one of the enduring mysteries of human biology.”

– Sandeep Jauhar, New York Times bestselling author of Heart: A History

An Elegant Defense...

*Nature, Best Science Picks

*USA Today, Five Books Not To Miss

*BBC, Ten Books to Read



“This book is at once enlightening, frightening, and heartwarming. Though filled with scientific descriptions of medical discoveries and experimental and proven treatments in a complex field, it is surprisingly easy to read… Readers who suffer from challenged immune systems will welcome validation for the physical and emotional trials they endure, gain deeper understanding of their ailments, and find hope for the future. Readers who are interested in the human body’s capacity

to both harm or heal itself will be fascinated.”

The New York Journal of Books

“A remarkable tale...Provocative. … Warm and heart-wrenching… Richtel is a gifted storyteller. … A story about cutting-edge science, humanely told...a thrilling ride.”

– Matt McCarthy, USA Today 

"Richtel brilliantly blurs the lines between biology primer, medical historical text and the traditional first-person patient story."

–  Karen Iris Tucker, The Washington Post 

“Deeply affecting… Richtel has exactly the right set of tools to explain how everything you know is wrong, why it’s wrong, and why that’s important — as well as what we actually now believe is right...A compelling modern history of—as well as an elegant defense for—the preeminent science of our time.”

– Los Angeles Review of Books


"An extraordinary book. It's clear why he won the Pulitzer Prize..."Everyone should read it. You'll want to tell your friends,"

Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer, Cleveland Clinic,

#1 New York Times bestselling author, voice of the "You The Owner's Manual" podcast.   


“Vividly told. ... Explicates for the lay reader the intricate biology of our immune system.

... Richtel succeeds in this formidable task.”

Jerome Groopman, New York Review of Books


 "A book that is so important. Phenomenal."

Dr. Michael Savage, the Savage Nation

“A deeply reported and entertainingly written exploration of the human immune system and how it works.”

USA Today (”5 Books Not to Miss”) 


“A remarkable journey of exploration inside the human body… richly informative and engaging…Eminently readable and with so many important takeaways, An Elegant Defense is well worth one's investment of time.” 

Shelf Awareness   


“In this thorough investigation, Richtel details the explosion of knowledge over the past 70 years.

... He weaves into his narrative four case studies [that] add a moving personal dimension.”

– BBC, Ten Books to Read This Month


“Award-winning reporter Matt Richtel examines the scientific and human realities of immune anomaly through four case studies. … Through these harrowing accounts, Richtel interweaves the research history.”

Nature, “Best Science Picks”

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