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A Biography of Cancer

A-The Emperor of All MaladiesSiddhartha Mukherjee is a physician at Columbia University Medical Center, specializing in cancer research. A Rhodes Scholar, he is also a graduate of Stanford University, the University of Oxford, and Harvard Medical School, as well as a prolific and highly respected science writer. This is his first book.

The Topic: Mukherjee chronicles the "life story" of cancer, the insidious disease that kills more than 1,500 Americans daily. He explores cancer's earliest documented history--from the scribbles on papyrus that suggest the existence of breast cancer in ancient Egypt to the women who suffered through primitive mastectomies in the hopes of cheating death. Mukherjee also highlights many of the unsung heroes in the cancer fight, including Sidney Farber, the pediatric pathologist who invented modern chemotherapy, and Mary Lasker, the New England socialite who lobbied tirelessly for cancer funding. He adds his own personal experiences as well. While Mukherjee recounts many brilliant scientific moments, he also details many of the failures of what he describes as "the defining plague of our generation."
Scribner. 592 pages. $30. ISBN: 9781439107959

Entertainment Weekly 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] brilliant, riveting history of the disease. ... Mukherjee translates the blocky languages of biology and chemistry into something resembling poetry." Tina Jordan

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[P]owerful and ambitious. ... Mukherjee has undertaken one of the most extraordinary stories in medicine." Jonathan Weiner

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Mukherjee's book is subtitled ‘A Biography of Cancer,' but it's really a group biography, of many kinds of cancers, and a chief lesson it imparts is that cancer treatments must be specific, targeted and based on intimate knowledge of how the cells operate. ...These science-filled sections are among the most intellectually challenging reading in his book, but also some of its most hopeful pages." Jim Higgins

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In a maneuver as transparently glib as that of calling his book a biography, Dr. Mukherjee also inserts occasional glimpses of his own patients, whose experiences are markedly overdramatized. ... But none of this personal material is as compelling as the story of how cancer research has progressed through so many different phases." Janet Maslin

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Though Dr. Mukherjee has a storyteller's flair and a gift for translating complex medical concepts into simple language, he occasionally reverts to jargon so dense--especially in describing key discoveries in cancer genetics--that the lay reader may feel overwhelmed. Yet The Emperor of All Maladies is well worth wading into, not least for its encompassing view of the science, philanthropy and politics that have defined the modern war on cancer." Laura Landro

Critical Summary

Many of Mukherjee's followers will not be surprised by his extraordinary debut, which critics found passionate, meticulous, and "crammed with fascinating characters" (Entertainment Weekly). The book's subtitle is a little intimidating (and, note a few reviewers, a little misleading), and the good doctor occasionally strays into overly complex medical lingo. However, most reviewers found the subject matter and prose style appropriate for the general reader. For anyone interested in cancer--its past, present, and future--The Emperor of All Maladies is "a history of eureka moments and decades of despair" (NY Times Book Review).