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Inflammation. One of the hoary, foundational words of Biology and Medicine. No two scientists I know agree on its definition. Rather, I have seen some come close to blows arguing over it. The quest to define Inflammation epitomizes the classic tale of six blind men and an elephant.

When my interest in biology was being slowly, painfully bled out by uninspiring teachers, textbooks, curricula and processes, Guido Majno’s textbook revitalized my joyful commitment to science. Co-written with his wife and colleague, Isabelle Joris, it’s their textbook of Pathology, “Cells, Tissues, and Disease — Principles of General Pathology”.

An electric pulse ran through me when I read their definition of Inflammation, “Inflammation is a response to local injury in vascularized tissues. Its purpose is to deliver white blood cells and fluid (plasma) to a site of injury”. That sounded just right. So simple, so elegant, so right.

Definitions are like trying to write on water. We each bring our subjective knowledge and experience to bear. In biomedical research, we have barked up many wrong trees by misunderstanding Inflammation. Years of work, numerous papers, time and efforts of untold number of scientists and support staff, and millions of dollars yield a particular working model of a biological phenomenon. Time and again, that model falls apart as more data accumulates. Frequent culprit? Erroneous definitions of Inflammation.

Majno-Joris’ definition of Inflammation? General not specific. Expansive not limited. Process not state. Neutralizes the usual troublemakers, degree and time. Inflammation could be acute or chronic, dominated by macrophages or eosinophils, and so on. Varieties of inflammation find common ground in Majno-Joris’ inclusive definition. A definition that emphasizes common ground is rare. To simplify without making simplistic requires artistry. It’s the hallmark of genius. Majno-Joris’ eloquent but succinct definition of Inflammation embodies such artistry.

Depending on how we use it, this information age of ours can certainly be a boon. We can access Majno-Joris’ book on Google, for example. Alight even by accident on any page in this massive 1040 page tome and we find a phrase or a description that delights. Try it. No disappointments, I promise. Majno-Joris’ inflammation definition is on page 307 of the 2004 second edition.

Cells, Tissues, and Disease : Principles of General Pathology

Guido Majno obituaries
Page on nih.gov
Page on archivesofpathology.org
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Guido Majno, truly a renaissance man of medicine.

Post by Tirumalai Kamala:

I learned from Guido Majno’s definition of Inflammation that a great definition is a work of genius.

I learned from Guido Majno’s definition of Inflammation that a great definition is a work of genius.

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