Book Review: The Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Scribner, 2010.

In The Emperor of All Maladies, oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee has written what surely will be the definitive popular history of cancer medicine. The author credits Richard Rhodes’ monumental account of the Manhattan Project, The Making of the Atomic Bomb [read my review], for inspiring the writing of this book. In subject matter, though, this book is more along the lines of Horace Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation. Indeed, the history of cancer is also the history of medicine. As other human diseases were conquered by vaccination (18th century), antisepsis (19th century), and modern pharmaceuticals (20th century), cancer remained resistant to the primitive onslaughts of early medicine. The ancients knew just enough about cancer to pronounce it incurable, and only recently have we discovered enough about cancer biology to mount a direct attack against it.


Dr. Mukherjee has written a remarkable book about a remarkable disease. One may quibble with the philosophical direction that the book takes, but the magnitude of his narrative achievement is undeniable. He has managed to capture the excitement of scientific discovery alongside the clash of medical egos, tracking the progress of human understanding of this most difficult of diseases. At times, the chronological narrative bogs down a bit in the mass of details and clash of competing models. But for the most part, the author produces some of the clearest and most vivid popular scientific writing that I’ve read.

The story of cancer is the story of a disease that has altered our expectations of medicine, frustrated our technological skills, and challenged our brightest minds. Our successes have been hard-won, and our failures have turned out to be paradigm-changing. That is why cancer is, truly, the emperor of all maladies.

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