The history of interferon is a cascade of stories and anecdotes that time and again enchant laymen and professionals alike. I start with two exemplary personal experiences. Shortly after a public presentation of my study on the history of interferon research in November 1999 I received a phone call from a Dutch farmer’s wife. She had come across my name in a rather negative newspaper article on interferon. She was surprised to find that interferon was called ‘the biggest flop in medical history’. As a supporter of orthomolecular medicine she firmly believed that interferon was in the same high potency category of natural substances as selenium. Her family and the flock of sheep had thrived on selenium for years and she was convinced that interferon would have similar beneficial health effects. She was not prepared to accept any shortsighted criticisms from the quarters of orthodox medicine on a substance that seemed to be a constituent part of the orthomolecular therapeutic universe. The issue raised baffled me. The only thing I was capable of was blaming the newspaper for selecting a misleading heading and telling her that, yes, I had been involved for years with interferon though not as part of regular medicine but as a medical historian. If it had not been for another incident that following day I would have put the matter to rest.
With the same almost ‘religious’ zeal as the proponent of alternative medical treatments had done before, the Dutch microbiologist with an impressive track record of 30 years of interferon research, Huub Schellekens, defended interferon in the Dutch newspaper ‘Het Parool’ as an evidence-based asset to the list of essential drugs in modern medicine. 1 Most striking, however, was the editor’s layout with centre-piece a photograph of two gloved hands holding out a nitrogen-frozen, smoky, crude interferon preparation. The image provoked an eureka experience. There was a magic quality to the picture that made me realize that, ever since Alick Isaacs and Jean Lindenmann publicly announced their discovery of a new virus interfering factor named ‘interferon’, both support rs and adversaries of orthodox medicine have attached to interferon ‘talismanic’ properties. Here was an answer to the intriguing question why interferon, despite its medical use being largely limited to specialized hospital care, enjoys a penicillin-like public name; in terms of its presence in almost every dictionary around the globe and its worldwide celebration as a milestone of twentieth century science and medicine. It was the encouragement I needed to produce a book that shows how interferon succeeded in being transformed from a nebulous problem at the laboratory bench into an imaginative biomedical entity that has entered and colonized the public consciousness.