How a Playboy Bunny turned into a well-respected immunologist

Marieke Rienks inspired by Polly Matzinger


Polly Matzinger (1947) didn’t quite know what to do with her life when she was young. She even worked as a Playboy Bunny playing billiards. “It was a great job”, she once told the Independent. “It paid 40 cents an hour and I got to listen to a lot of great conversations.” Many years later, in 1994, she proposed a mind-blowing new immunological model.

During her Playboy Bunny days, Matzinger met two professors who regularly visited the bar. One evening she asked them an intriguing question about their field. You could have knocked the two men down with a feather: yes, she was a waitress, but a very smart one. On the urging of one of the professors, Matzinger turned to science.

And she is a brilliant scientist, says Marieke Rienks (30), a PhD student in molecular cardiology at Maastricht University. Rienks had never heard of Matzinger until April 2013, when she attended an international conference on experimental biology in Boston. “I was looking for presentations about immunology and chose Matzinger’s one, because I thought it might be relevant for my research. The first thing I saw on stage was one of those old-fashioned overhead projectors!” Rienks fought the urge to run, and experienced a sort of awakening as Matzinger started talking. “It was an inspiring, interactive and well-spoken presentation. On top of that, she demonstrated what a good scientist has to do: be curious, question theories, even if these are well established.”

As early as 1994, Matzinger questioned the predominant model in immunology: the self-non-self theory by the Nobel Prize winner Peter Medawar. Rienks explains: “Our immune system distinguishes between self and non-self, between what’s in our body since our birth and what’s ‘strange’. The idea is that strange things will be attacked and destroyed.”

Matzinger had her doubts. What about a breastfeeding mother, whose milk proteins are ‘strange’ in the sense that they are not present in her mother’s body until that time? Matzinger’s very plausible explanation: the immune system attacks not what is strange, but what is dangerous – what will actually cause damage to tissues and cells. “It’s brilliant”, says Rienks. “There are many scientists who agree, especially the young ones. It’s the older generation who often criticise, saying it’s just a hypothesis. Of course it’s a hypothesis, but I definitely wouldn’t call it bullshit.”

Rienks has always been a curious girl, she says. As a child she was always yearning for more, wanting to know all the details. “I remember my biology classes at high school. I’d ask my teacher ‘why this’ and ‘why that’, and he always answered, ‘Marieke, you don’t need to know the answer. It is as it is.’ But I didn’t feel satisfied at all.”

As if her theory weren’t controversial enough, Matzinger named her dog as a co-author in one of her earliest publications. Rienks laughs: “It’s fantastic! And she has a point. Co-authorship is such a political question. You have to wonder, is it always necessary to mention a third or fourth author?” The journal was less impressed Matzinger’s ‘joke’, banning her work for years.

This is a series in which researchers talk about the person who inspired them most

How a Playboy Bunny turned into a well-respected immunologist
Marieke Rienks and Polly Matzinger
Author: Wendy Degens
Joey Roberts/ Simone Golob

Add Response

Click here for our privacy statement.

Since January 2022, Observant only publishes comments of people whose name is known to the editors.