The Emperor of All Maladies; A great piece of literature on cancer

I have been funded through the cancer training grant for the past few years at my school. Obviously, the goal of this grant is to educate and produce future cancer research scientist. Cancer research has been an interest of mine for a very long time yet I felt that I don’t usually see the big picture of cancer research, this the same with my fellow trainees. So one day we brought up this to our grant director. He made some comments about improving different aspects of the group in the future. However bringing up this question led me to my own soul-searching on the impact of cancer not just scientifically but in various other perspectives. Hence I wanted to get to know the concept of cancer beyond clinically and biologically; I wanted to get know how cancer impacted humanity sociologically, politically and economically. I did some research and I found a book titled “The Emperor of All Maladies.” I saw some good reviews for the book and even a Pulitzer price was awarded for the book. So I thought I will try to read it to enhance my knowledge. But I never got the time until this winter break, fortunately I read the book over the winter break and it was an amazing experience getting to know how cancer is intertwined with the  human history for centuries.


I have to admit that it was one of the best popular science literature I have ever read. The author, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee combines the scientific knowledge and literary prowess in right proportion to educate even a lay person about the nuts and bolts of cancer. Although I have been doing cancer research for the past two years and had relatives who lost the battle against cancer, this book brought me the perspective of how the society and human culture is part of the process all along. Since many of the important discoveries in cancer research was made in Boston area, I was also able to connect personally to those places mentioned in the book such as Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Longfellow bridge and Amroy street in Brookline as a person living in Boston. I would like to give some snippets from the book that were interesting to me as a cancer researcher.

Dr. Sidney Farber

Dr. Mukherjee analyzes the history of cancer from the beginning of human history. Although our ancestors didn’t use the lingo that we are using today, they reported very similar cases of tumor development thousands of years ago. One of which was by an Egyptian polymath Imhotep who wrote extensive books on diseases and treatment. In his books he elaborated cures for many diseases but for the tumor of the breast he had one line “There is no cure.” Though this prediction by Imhotep might seem outdated in this day and age, we still don’t have a universal cure for cancer and it is further explained in the later chapters of the book. Few more chapters were dedicated to the history of cancer through medieval ages to the late 18th and 19th century.


Mr. Yellapragada Subbarao

Fast forward to the beginning of 20th century and there was Dr. Sidney Farber, father of modern chemotherapy. Although I have been to Dana Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) at the Longwood medical area (LMA), I didn’t know the significance of Dr. Farber’s work until I read the book. I was fortunate enough to read this book when I am located here in the Longwood medical area. Another unknown scientist also brought into the scene with Dr. Farber, it was Mr. Yellapragada Subbarao. An Indian biochemist who provided Dr. Farber with the first chemotherapeutic chemical. After doing some research I also found out that Mr. Subbarao  made some important discoveries in ATP functioning in the cells among others. It was refreshing to see that these unknown scientists who were the giants behind important discoveries like chemotherapy were brought into limelight in this book.


The reason I liked the book even more is the way it captured how cancer and cancer research impacted the American politics since the 1950s. In Longwood I have come across the name “Jimmy fund” several times. There is a street called Jimmy fund way there was Jimmy fund building and one of my professors also had an email with domain name Jimmy. I found out through this book that Jimmy fund is a fundraising campaign started by Dr. Farber to fund cancer research based on a childhood leukemia patient named Jimmy whose real name was Einar Gustafson. It was an eye opening moment when I realized the reason behind the name Jimmy since I was wondering why would anyone name so many things Jimmy in a serious community with several research centers and hospitals. This type of fund raising eventually lead to the war against cancer by the U.S. government. Even today millions of dollars were donated to Jimmy fund through 5k runs, cancer walks and Boston RedSox games.


There were also some other interesting moments in the cancer history elaborated very well in the book. Some of which include the invention of pap smear by Dr. George Papanikolaou and Dr. Barry Marshall drinking a broth full of H. pylori bacteria to demonstrate that the main cause of stomach cancer is H. pylori bacteria and not stress and many other interesting moments.

Overall it is not an overstatement to say that this book is a biography of cancer. Today we take several factors of cancer genesis for granted; but this book shows several instants where many scientists who discovered these groundbreaking ideas were rebuked by the government, major industries like tobacco industry and even fellow scientists.

One small concern that I have about the book is that, like many other popular science book it only recounts how cancer has been perceived and written by European civilization and Egyptian  civilization. I am sure there are many other cultures around the world who saw cancer millennia ago and wrote about it. I would like to see a book where history of cancer incorporated from different cultures and communities around the world. It will be interesting to see how these different cultures prevented or cured different forms of cancer using their own type of medicine. I am sure it will be a massive effort since in the ancient time people were mainly concerned about infectious diseases that decimated people in young ages instead of cancer which usually manifests itself in the aged population. Nevertheless this is an excellent book to read if you want to get to know about cancer in all its aspects and it will be even more interesting if you are a cancer researcher like me. Because you will never see cancer just as a disease any more !








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