2011 Pulitzer Prize Winner, General Nonfiction
The Emperor of All Maladies is a magnificent, profoundly humane "biography" of cancer -- from its first documented appearances thousands of years ago through the epic battles in the twentieth century to cure, control, and conquer it to a radical new understanding of its essence.Read more...
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2011 Pulitzer Prize Winner, General Nonfiction
The Emperor of All Maladies is a magnificent, profoundly humane "biography" of cancer -- from its first documented appearances thousands of years ago through the epic battles in the twentieth century to cure, control, and conquer it to a radical new understanding of its essence. Physician, researcher, and award-winning science writer, Siddhartha Mukherjee examines cancer with a cellular biologists precision, a historians perspective, and a biographers passion. The result is an astonishingly lucid and eloquent chronicle of a disease humans have lived with -- and perished from -- for more than five thousand years.
The story of cancer is a story of human ingenuity, resilience, and perseverance, but also of hubris, paternalism, and misperception. Mukherjee recounts centuries of discoveries, setbacks, victories, and deaths, told through the eyes of his predecessors and peers, training their wits against an infinitely resourceful adversary that, just three decades ago, was thought to be easily vanquished in an all-out "war against cancer." The book reads like a literary thriller with cancer as the protagonist. From the Persian Queen Atossa, whose Greek slave cut off her malignant breast, to the nineteenth-century recipients of primitive radiation and chemotherapy to Mukherjees own leukemia patient, Carla, The Emperor of All Maladies is about the people who have soldiered through fiercely demanding regimens in order to survive -- and to increase our understanding of this iconic disease. Riveting, urgent, and surprising, The Emperor of All Maladies provides a fascinating glimpse into the future of cancer treatments. It is an illuminating book that provides hope and clarity to those seeking to demystify cancer.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2010-09-27
- Reviewer: Staff
Mukherjee's debut book is a sweeping epic of obsession, brilliant researchers, dramatic new treatments, euphoric success and tragic failure, and the relentless battle by scientists and patients alike against an equally relentless, wily, and elusive enemy. From the first chemotherapy developed from textile dyes to the possibilities emerging from our understanding of cancer cells, Mukherjee shapes a massive amount of history into a coherent story with a roller-coaster trajectory: the discovery of a new treatment--surgery, radiation, chemotherapy--followed by the notion that if a little is good, more must be better, ending in disfiguring radical mastectomy and multidrug chemo so toxic the treatment ended up being almost worse than the disease. The first part of the book is driven by the obsession of Sidney Farber and philanthropist Mary Lasker to find a unitary cure for all cancers. (Farber developed the first successful chemotherapy for childhood leukemia.) The last and most exciting part is driven by the race of brilliant, maverick scientists to understand how cells become cancerous. Each new discovery was small, but as Mukherjee, a Columbia professor of medicine, writes, "Incremental advances can add up to transformative changes." Mukherjee's formidable intelligence and compassion produce a stunning account of the effort to disrobe the "emperor of maladies." (Nov.)
A better understanding of cancer
Cancer, a disease with tens of millions of faces, will require many biographers. But those future biographers and historians of the disease will labor from deep within the long shadow cast by Siddhartha Mukherjee’s remarkable The Emperor of All Maladies.
Starting with the teachings of the Egyptian physician Imhotep (circa 2625 B.C.), Mukherjee’s “biography of cancer” offers a sweeping “attempt to enter the mind of this immortal disease, to understand its behavior.” It is a vivid and profoundly engaging read.
Mukherjee, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and a former Rhodes Scholar, is both a cancer physician and a cancer researcher. He is also extraordinarily good at explaining complex medical and scientific issues and controversies. He devotes most of his pages to developments in laboratory research and clinical treatment since the 1950s, as cancer medicine moved from a gruesome regimen of radical surgeries, through the development of radiation treatments, into chemotherapy and combined therapies and, finally, to the present era, in which research and treatment have finally come together and biotechnology has given rise to targeted therapies that attack cancer cells and the genes within those cells.
Science and medicine, like all human endeavors, are driven by the knowledge, intelligence, ambitions and egos of the people involved, and Mukherjee presents lively thumbnail portraits of doctors and researchers and of the battles that engaged them. He writes vividly of the political struggles to fund cancer research and to limit known carcinogens like tobacco. He quotes poets, philosophers and writers, particularly Susan Sontag, and he writes with empathy about the experiences of his own patients. All of this makes The Emperor of All Maladies not just an exceptional work in the history of science but a fine example of literary nonfiction.
Cancer, as Mukherjee writes in his epilogue, is “the scrappy, fecund, invasive, adaptable twin to our own scrappy, fecund, invasive, adaptable cells and genes.” This means that we may never completely defeat this many-headed disease. But, he suggests, with a greater understanding of cancer, we may at least be able to forestall its fatal effects until old age. With The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddartha Mukherjee makes a large contribution to a better general understanding of this dread disease.