On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss

I recently listened to On Immunity by Eula Biss. It’s about immunity and vaccines.

The book
This is a book about immunization and vaccines. It looks at the history of vaccines and the politics of vaccines. Eula Biss is not a scientist, but a poet. She started thinking more about vaccination when she became pregnant and had a baby. When she had a baby she realized she would have to choose whether or not to vaccinate him, and she started looking into vaccines. She has looked at history, and the politics as I said, and she has referred to a lot of other mothers who she spoke to about vaccines and the choices they made.

I really liked science books that aren’t written by scientists, because the ones I’ve read have been really well done and they are usually easier to understand than dense scientific text. It obviously helps that Biss is a poet and prose writer, her writing is good and flows really well.

I think it worked well to structure the vaccination narrative around her son. Since she’s not a scientist she needs a different frame of reference. Her father is a doctor and he features a lot too. She tends to use him as her first port of call when she’s sick or her son is sick. I liked her dad having this presence in the book, because Biss has clearly grown up in a home where she has learned a bit of medical science just by knowing her dad. And I think it makes her more suspicious and it makes her look more deeply at what doctors told her.

It was really interesting to learn about how vaccines have been forced on people, literally. Soldiers and women were forced to vaccinate on gunpoint basically, and it has led to medical legislation on personal freedom, which is really cool. And it was interesting to see how inoculation has been so important in big social and military movements through time.

She uses a vampire as a metaphor for infection through the whole book. To me it worked well as a metaphor and it made sense. Vampires have a long history and they’ve always been this mysterious thing that causes illness or anemia, or fear. Only lately have vampires become these brooding, sexy teen crushes. And she connected Dracula’s arrival in England with the way that plague comes to a country and decimates people. Obviously he’s also Eastern European, so he’s an immigrant, which makes him feel threatening as well, and it’s a fascinating link to infection as well, it’ll come from somewhere else, people we don’t know, which was an interesting view.

She obviously looks at the many conspiracies around vaccines. There is the big one which says that the MMR vaccine causes autism, which is absolutely not true. There has been a lot of criticism of vaccines lately and people stop vaccinating themselves and their kids. Refusing vaccines have a long history though, particularly when the way of vaccinating someone was to infect them with a milder strain. She doesn’t really seem to have a strong opinion, or at least she doesn’t give a strong opinion either way. She just presents the cases for both vaccinating and not vaccinating. Which I really appreciate. I’m pro-vaccination and I tend to get a bit annoyed with anti-vaxxers so it was nice to hear the positions presented sort of neutrally. I should point out. I understand that some people can’t get vaccinated, but that’s why it’s important for the rest of us to vaccinate to protect as many as possible.


I found the whole thing really interesting. She’s a very engaging writer and it’s a topic that really fascinates me. I liked Eula Biss’ writing and the flow of it. I listened to it on audiobook, and it was great. Tamara Marston did a good job of narrating it.