Book review: The Emperor of all maladies

This brief book review by Emma Cookson was first published in the 2011/2012 Mill Hill Essays.

This book is an extensive and comprehensive “biography” of cancer, from its first appearances thousands of years ago through to details of the latest breakthroughs in treatment, detection and prevention. The author calls the book a biography as he says that is what it became during the writing process:

“I started off by imagining my project as a ‘history’ of cancer, but it felt, inescapably, as if I were writing not about something but about someone. My subject daily morphed into something that resembled an individual – an enigmatic, if somewhat deranged, image in a mirror.”

This take on the history of the disease makes the book a compelling read as Mukherjee conveys a very human struggle with this deranged individual, both through his own experiences as a clinical oncologist and through comprehensive accounts of some of the most important and influential cases throughout history. The first half of the book is an overview of the history of the disease and centres mainly on early breakthroughs in the twentieth century, including the prominent work of Sidney Farber and colleagues. The later chapters cover important discoveries made in the lab during basic research into the cellular biology of cancer. This section is written with much skill, aimed at a non-scientific reader but with enough detail to keep the scientific reader interested and informed. Overall this book is a beautifully written account of a fascinating disease, providing much insight into the worlds of both clinical oncology and medical research. The book was a winner of the Guardian First Book Award, 2011, and of the Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction, 2011.

The Emperor of all maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee is published by Fourth Estate, 2011.

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