Once in a while you come across a book that is like a rich dessert; it is tempting to consume it all in one sitting, however the most enjoyment comes from savouring it over a longer period of time.
The Emperor of all Maladies: A biography of cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee is once such book. It is rich in content and style, weaving together the history and science of cancer research with incredible skill. Dr Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher himself, effectively transposes his own personal experiences with cancer patients, with a comprehensive telling of the story of the history of cancer – its science, its personalities and its politics. From a little understood and largely ignored disease prior to World War II, the stubbornness of doctor Sidney Farber and the patronage of socialite Mary Lasker threw cancer to the forefront of the American (and Western world’s) consciousness, leading the invigoration of the National Cancer Institute and multimillion dollar funding of the search for “a cure” for cancer. Over the intervening years many different characters were involved in the many triumphs (and tragedies) of cancer research, and Dr Mukherjee not only tells us of their roles, but also introduces us to the people themselves – their personalities, their faults and their motivations.
The Emperor of all Maladies is one of the best stories of scientific research have read, because it tells us so much more than just the research. It brings science into the “real world” affected by politics, personalities and perseverence. I would highly recommend this as a worthwhile summer holiday read (if you can wait that long).