Siddhartha Mukherjee


American Physician, Biological Scientist and Author, Awarded Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Emperor Of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

Author Quotes

Every drug, the sixteenth-century physician Paracelsus once opined, is a poison in disguise. Cancer chemotherapy, consumed by its fiery obsession to obliterate the cancer cell, found its roots in the obverse logic: every poison might be a drug in disguise.

He looked away with a flicker of irritation. I know what the statistics are. His voice was strained, as if tightening against a harness. Left to myself, I would not even try. I?m doing this because of the kids.

I had a novice's hunger for history, but also a novice's inability to envision it.

In 1870, the per capita consumption in America was less than one cigarette per year. A mere thirty years later, Americans were consuming 3.5 billion cigarettes and 6 billion cigars every year. By 1953, the average annual consumption of cigarettes had reached thirty-five hundred per person. On average, an adult American smoked ten cigarettes every day, an average Englishman twelve, a Scotsman nearly twenty.

In Georgian England, sweeps and climbing-boys were regarded as general cesspools of disease?dirty, consumptive, syphilitic, pox-ridden?and a ragged, ill-looking sore, easily attributed to some sexually transmitted illness, was usually treated with a toxic mercury-based chemical and otherwise shrugged off. (Syphilis, as the saying ran, was one night with Venus, followed by a thousand nights with mercury.)

In the neighboring town of Carlisle, Lister had observed sewage disposers cleanse their waste with a cheap, sweet-smelling liquid containing carbolic acid. Lister began to apply carbolic acid paste to wounds after surgery. (That he was applying a sewage cleanser to his patients appears not to have struck him as even the slightest bit unusual.)

It remains an astonishing, disturbing fact that in America - a nation where nearly every new drug is subjected to rigorous scrutiny as a potential carcinogen, and even the bare hint of a substance's link to cancer ignites a firestorm of public hysteria and media anxiety - one of the most potent and common carcinogens known to humans can be freely bought and sold at every corner store for a few dollars.

Low fiber, red meat rich diets increase the risks of colon cancer, and obesity is linked to breast cancer, but much more about these links remain unknown, especially in molecular terms.

Negative genes, such as Rb, suppress cell division. In normal cells, these anti-oncogenes, or tumor suppressor genes, provide the brakes to cellular proliferation, shutting down cell division when the cell receives appropriate signals. In cancer cells, these brakes have been inactivated by mutations. In cells with missing brakes, to use Bishop?s analogy again, the stop signals for mitosis can no longer be registered. Again, the cell divides and keeps dividing, defying all signals to stop. Both abnormalities, activated proto-oncogenes and inactivated tumor suppressors (jammed accelerators and missing brakes), represent the core molecular defects in the cancer cell. Bishop, Knudson, and Varmus did not know how many such defects were ultimately needed to cause human cancers. But a confluence of them, they postulated, caused cancer.

Patients tell stories to describe illness; doctors tell stories to understand it. Science tells its own story to explain diseases.

Scientists often study the past as obsessively as historians because few other professions depend so acutely on it. Every experiment is a conversation with a prior experiment, every new theory a refutation of the old.

The Apollo mission and the Manhattan Project, the two models driving this War on Cancer were both technological achievements that stood on the shoulders of long and deep scientific discoveries (atomic physics, fluid mechanics, and thermodynamics). In contrast, even a cursory understanding of the process that made cells become malignant was missing. Seizing on the Laskerites? favorite metaphor, Sol Spiegelman, the Columbia University cancer scientist, argued, an all-out effort at this time would be like trying to land a man on the moon without knowing Newton?s laws of gravity. James Watson, who had discovered the structure of DNA, unloosed a verbal rampage against the Senate bill. Doing ?relevant? research is not necessarily doing ?good? research, Watson would later write. In particular we must reject the notion that we will be lucky?. Instead we will be witnessing a massive expansion of well-intentioned mediocrity.

The history of Medicine is replete with examples of cures obtained years, decades, and even centuries before the mechanism of action was understood for these cures.

The problem with racial discrimination, though, is not the inference of a person's race from their genetic characteristics. It is quite the opposite: it is the inference of a person's characteristics from their race. The question is not, can you, given an individual's skin color, hair texture, or language, infer something about their ancestry or origin. That is a question of biological systematics -- of lineage, taxonomy, of racial geography, of biological discrimination. Of course you can -- and genomics as vastly refined that inference. You can scan any individual genome and infer rather deep insights about a person's ancestry, or place of origin. But the vastly more controversial question is the converse: Given a racial identity -- African or Asian, say -- can you infer anything about an individual's characteristics: not just skin or hair color, but more complex features, such as intelligence, habits, personality, and aptitude?

There's a phrase in Shakespeare: he refers to it as the 'hidden imposthume', and this idea of a hidden swelling is seminal to cancer. But even in more contemporary writing it's called 'the big C'.

Two presentations, among all, stood out in their particularly chilling fervor. The first was an enthusiastic and precise exhibit by the Germans endorsing race hygiene?a grim premonition of times to come. Alfred

As early as the sixth century BC, ayurvedic practitioners in India had recognized the general symptoms of anemia.

But the pigs--seventy pounds of porcine weight that did not take kindly to weekly endoscopies--did not sprout any ulcers. And testing the theory on humans was ethically impossible: how could one justify infecting a human with a new, uncharacterized species of bacteria to prove that it caused gastritis and predisposed to cancer?

Cancer geneticists already knew two answers to this question. First proto-oncogenes need to be cultivated through mutations, and mutations are rare events. Second, tumor suppressor genes need to be inactivated, but typically two copies exist of each such tumor suppressor gene, and thus, two independent mutations are needed to inactivate a tumor suppressor, an even rare event. Vogelstein provided the third answer. Activating or inactivating any single gene, he postulated, produced only the first steps of a march toward carcinogenesis. Cancer?s march was long and slow and proceeded through many mutations in many genes over many iterations. In genetic terms, our cells were not sitting on the edge of the abyss of cancer. They were dragged toward that abyss in graded, discrete steps.

Carla had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It is one of the most common forms of cancer in children, but rare in adults.

Every era casts illness in its own image. Society, like the ultimate psychosomatic patient, matches its medical afflictions to its psychological crises; when a disease touches such a visceral chord, it is often because that chord is already resonating.

He was willing to have faith in divine wisdom, but not in Halsted as divine wisdom. In God we trust, he brusquely told a journalist. All others [must] have data.

I had never expected medicine to be such a lawless, uncertain world. I wondered if the compulsive naming of parts, diseases, and chemical reactions? frenulum, otitis, glycolysis? was a mechanism invented by doctors to defend themselves against a largely unknowable sphere of knowledge. The profusion of facts obscured a deeper and more significant problem: the reconciliation between knowledge (certain, fixed, perfect, concrete) and clinical wisdom (uncertain, fluid, imperfect, abstract).

In 1940, after a prolonged and unsuccessful convalescence, Lasker?s mother died in Watertown. For Lasker, her mother?s death brought to a boil the fury and indignation that had been building within her for decades. She had found her mission. I am opposed to heart attacks and cancer, she would later tell a reporter, the way one is opposed to sin. Mary Lasker chose to eradicate diseases as some might eradicate sin?through evangelism. In people did not believe in the importance of a national strategy against diseases, she would convert them, using every means at her disposal.

In God we trust, he brusquely told a journalist. All others [must] have data.

First Name
Last Name
Birth Date

American Physician, Biological Scientist and Author, Awarded Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Emperor Of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer