From Galen to Gleevec


The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
Siddhartha Mukherjee
Scribner; 2010 (Amazon)

Siddhartha Mukherjee, assistant professor of Medicine at Columbia University and staff physician at the CU/NYU Presbyterian Hospital, has written an epic history of Western medicine and its ultimate nemesis, the disorder of fundamental life processes we call cancer. Combining the tools of journalism, history, true crime, and memoir with a novelist’s grasp of character and plot, a physician’s compassion, and a scientist’s perspective, Mukerjee delivers an absorbing, credible, and deeply meaningful narrative that also benchmarks for future readers the art and science of oncology today.

Tracing the history of oncology from Hippocrates and Galen through the centuries to the beginning of small-molecule targeted therapy with the introduction of Gleevec for chronic myeloid leukemia, Mukherjee highlights legendary players including Andreas Vesalius; John Bennett; Gregor Mendel; Rudolf Virchow; Robert Koch; William Stewart Halsted; Pierre and Marie Curie; Oswald Avery; Lucy Wills; Sidney Farber; Mary Lasker; Emil Freireich and Emil Frei; Min Chiu Li; Thomas Hodgkin; Henry Kaplan; Donald Pinkel; Peyton Rous; Mary Cole; Gianni Bonadonna and Umberto Veronesi; Richard Doll and Bradford Hill; Bruce Ames; Baruch Blumberg; Marcus Conant and Paul Volberding; David Baltimore; Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus; Janet Rowley; Peter Nowell and David Hungerford; Robert Weinberg; Bert Vogelstein; Judah Folkman; Axel Ullrich, Dennis Slamon, Alex Matter, and Nick Lydon; Brian Druker, Charles Sawyers, Moshe Talpaz, and Hagop Kantarjian; and Francis Collins.

Mukherjee also delves into the work and motivations of more than twice this number of investigators, and quotes liberally from humanist writers, including Susan Sontag, William Carlos Williams, and Rose Kushner. Perhaps most important, much of the book details the experience of cancer patients, including those of the author.

Essential reading that is also most enjoyable.