Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All MaladiesThe Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this elegant blend of history and science, a practicing oncologist reveals the hidden history of cancer: a story riddled with painstaking research, leaps of insight, and the seemingly endless instances of human suffering and endurance.

Cancer once lurked quietly behind common plagues like smallpox, cholera, influenza, et cetera - until the 20th century, when longer life spans and healthier human beings revealed the seemingly inescapable disease that had no effective treatment. Starting with the story of one of his own adult leukemia patients, Mukherjee tracks the brief appearances of cancer throughout the centuries, then narrows his focus on the doctors who began the modern fight by first seeking treatments, and then slowly moved to searching for the causes of this imperial affliction.

The history of cancer in America is one of movements in both scientific understanding and medical activism, a story of the unintended consequences of attempting to manipulate complex systems. As Mukherjee guides us through the theories about cancer (from Galen's four humors to carcinogens, to viruses, and finally to genetics), he uncovers the incredible difficulties that beset scientific advancement, where judgment can be easily clouded by desperate hopes, ambitions, prejudices, misconceptions, and outright lies.

Mukherjee covers an incredible amount of ground in this microhistory, but rarely leaves the importance of the all too-human doctors and patients behind. This book is a masterpiece of writing and research, and in 2011 received a richly deserved Pulitzer Prize.

For further reading, there are few science history books as impressive as this one; but Oliver Sacks is a science writer and neurologist who always treats the fascinating case histories he writes about with compassionate insight. His book Awakenings tells the story of people stricken during a sleeping sickness epidemic who were briefly awakened decades later, like real-life Rip Van Winkles. Mukherjee often refers to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, which is both an allegory of the Soviet state and a depiction of people suffering terminal illness.

On a shallower note, it strikes me as somehow unfair that Dr. Mukherjee should be such a gifted writer and oncologist - and have hair this good:
Siddhartha Mukherjee
Author Siddhartha Mukherjee
Am I right?

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