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In recent years historical chronicles of illnesses have made the publishing rounds. Just as one author might tackle the sprawling historicity of the Hapsburg’s, others have recently opted to focus their research on disease. Some have taken a light, humorous approach to disease and decay, Mary Roach’s Stiff for example, as opposed to a more traditionally dense, academic style. The latter, while thorough, doesn’t really do any favors for the lay person. I’m sure researchers and scientists wait with baited breath to get their collective lab coats in a bunch when new specialized journal articles are published, but where does that leave the casual albeit curious reader?
Siddhartha Mukherjee seeks to unite both ends of the technical spectrum with his exhaustive history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies . As an oncologist and Associate Professor at Columbia University, there’s no question Mukharjee has the chops and acumen to pen such a comprehensive history; what’s surprising is his ability to pepper his historical approach with pleasant, engaging prose that doesn’t turn reading …Maladies into a labor intensive undertaking. What is just as interesting as the historicity of cancer is the historical contexts in which it was treated. Lymphoma, in particular, presented an especially dreadful challenge to doctors. But advances in chemistry intended to benefit Germany’s clothing dye industry aided the fight against lymph node cancers. Increased funding for biological and chemical weaponry during the First World War gave doctors tools and resources for their own medical research, yielding breakthroughs such as folic acids, a stepping stone that yielded results in lymphoma treatments. There’s plenty of darker tales of treatment, too. Though it is important to remember that it is fallacious to hold past practices to our current ethics and standards, it remains difficult to not cringe when reading about ‘radical breast cancer treatment’. It was thought that simply removing the tissue containing the tumor was not sufficient, that the area tissues would soon be infected with cancerous cells too. And though this reasoning isn’t entirely faulty, it’s the resulting treatment that is gruesome. Radical mastectomy’s, or the removal of almost all of a chest cavity, with the accompanied illustrations, were particularly cringe worthy. All in all, it’s not only the scientific progress one can marvel in Emperor of All Maladies , but the fact that Mukherjee wrote such a comprehensive history without it reading like a college lecture is a feat in itself.