Interview with creative non-fiction writer Robert W. Soll, MD, PhD

My special guest today is Robert
W. Soll, MD, PhD and he’s talking with me about his non-fiction book, Unraveling
MS: Food and Infection: Unexpected Partners in MS and Other
Autoimmune Diseases
Welcome, Robert. Please tell us a little bit about
Although medicine has
occupied my life for many years, I have had a wide range of interests including
aviation, music, literature, military, and other fields of science. My
attraction to medicine first surfaced during the summer of 1944 while I was
attending a summer school in Minnesota. I became friends with another boy whose
father was a well-known physician. My friend wanted to become a physician like
his father. His ambitions strongly motivated my own interest in medicine.
Thereafter, I never
considered doing anything other than becoming a doctor. I remember lying in bed
at night as a college freshman—I just couldn’t wait to begin medical school
although it was going to be at least 3 more years. I finally graduated from the
College of Medicine at the University of Iowa in 1956, completed a rotating
internship at Albany Hospital, New York in 1957, and then served two years in
the Strategic Air Command at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.
After finishing a three-year
residency in Neurology at the University of Minnesota, I completed a
post-doctoral fellowship in 1970, majoring in Bacteriology and Immunology. My
intense interest in the immune system and its relation to multiple sclerosis had
gradually evolved during my neurology residency, and that interest has never
diminished throughout my life. My lifetime goal has been to understand multiple
sclerosis so that I could control it and improve the lives of my patients. I was
very fortunate to have had the support of my professor and mentor, Dr. Dennis
Watson, during my post-doctoral studies, and the opportunity to work with Dr.
John Najarian and Richard Condie in the Department of Transplant Surgery at the
University of Minnesota. In addition to my career in medicine, I joined the
Army Reserves, became a Flight Surgeon, rose to the rank of Colonel, and eventually
retired from the Virginia National Guard.
Please tell us about your current release.
The cause of multiple
sclerosis (MS) has remained a mystery for more than 150 years. Some of the
first signs of MS might be symptoms such as intermittent numbness, weakness, dizziness,
incoordination, or blurred vision. Individuals who develop such symptoms often
become very concerned, fearing that they may become an invalid without any hope
for a cure. I believe that most patients, their friends and relatives really want
to know more about the way that MS actually causes illness and how it can be
controlled. In my book, Unraveling MS,
I have submitted an “easy to read” detailed explanation of MS. This involves
describing our complex immune system—how it protects us as well as how it sometimes
may cause a serious illness. I also have discussed the blood-brain barrier and
how it serves to protect the brain and spinal cord from disease, the malicious
role that viruses play in contributing to the onset of MS, the fascinating way
that white blood cells interact with each other, and the process of
inflammation in both health and disease. I have used multiple sclerosis (MS) as
a model autoimmune disease in my book because of my involvement in research and
treatment of MS for several decades. Since most autoimmune diseases have a
similar immune mechanism like MS, much of the information presented here may also
be relevant to those conditions as well. My understanding of MS has changed
considerably since the publication of my first book entitled, MS, Something Can Be Done published in
1984 in conjunction with Penelope Grenoble, PhD. At that time, very little was
known about the intercellular transmission of chemical signals between white
blood cells within the immune system by substances called “cytokines.” Their
discovery has brought a much better understanding for all of the autoimmune
diseases, and it has stimulated the development of more effective methods for
treating these conditions. Further, their discovery has also supported my
earlier belief that controlling infection as well as modifying one’s diet is
extremely important in controlling MS, a subject that has been emphasized in my
current book.
What inspired you to write this book?
I had treated more than 50
MS patients with an equine antiserum over a six-year period between 1971 and
1977. This antiserum was revolutionary at that time. It had been developed by
the Department of Transplant Surgery at the University of Minnesota for
preventing the rejection of kidney transplants. The antiserum, called
antilymphoblastic globulin (ALG), had been prepared against a specific type of
white blood cell that was thought to be causing transplant rejection. I had
considered MS to be a form of rejection of the nervous system similar to a kidney
transplant rejection. It was easy to understand how removal of white blood
cells attacking a kidney transplant could prolong its survival. On the other
hand, it was more difficult to comprehend why ALG could improve MS even though
it was not removing white blood cells already within the brain and spinal cord.
Since there was no way to explain this paradox in 1984, I only mentioned the
antiserum briefly in my first book. What now has inspired me to write this book
is that research over the past three decades has helped “unravel” how the ALG antiserum
actually was producing such good results. This explanation together with employing
a proper diet can not only improve MS but can also help anyone live a longer
and healthier life. Remarkably, many new therapies for MS and other autoimmune
diseases now include a number of specific antisera directed against identified
targets in the body.
What exciting story are you working on next?
Curiously, in a book of
this genre, I have already found ways to improve and elaborate upon the
explanations contained in it. Consequently, if I live long enough, I may write
a “second” edition, hopefully in the not too distant future.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I have never considered
writing as a profession although I have published or been a contributor to a
number of medical papers and two other books.
Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day
like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to
No, but I consider myself
lucky to have lived to see the computer replace the encyclopedia, and find the
internet marvelously helpful in answering many questions I have on a daily
basis. Years ago, I remember talking with a salesman selling a set of
encyclopedias. He told me an interesting story (although I don’t know if it was
true). He claimed that he had tried to sell a set of encyclopedias to Orson
Welles. Mr. Welles had apparently turned him down initially, stating that he
knew everything in the encyclopedias. He even proved this by telling the
salesman exactly how many bushels of corn was produced in Iowa in 1955. As the salesman
turned to leave, Mr. Welles unexpectedly said, “Wait, I think I will buy a set
of encyclopedias—then I can prove to others that I really know everything in
those books.”
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
My quirk is writing
something, then rewriting again and again, and still not being satisfied with
what I have written.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to fly an
airplane. I also wanted to be a doctor. I can proudly say that I have over 1000
hours flying time with a perfect safety record. I am also very glad that I have
been able to help patients over the years to the best of my ability.
Anything additional you want to share with the
My neighbor and I together
built a 25×40 foot, two story barn 8 years ago. Also, I have two wonderful
golden retrievers, and one border collie that is too smart for his own good.
They keep me healthy by exercising me every day!

Thanks for being here today, Robert.

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