Book Review: The Emperor of All Maladies

In 2012 I participate for the first time in a bookish challenge. Click here to see the different catagories. 

For the History category I read The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

The Emperor of all Maladies is a biography: not of a person or a company, but of a disease – one of the most dreaded known in history. A biography of Cancer.

It takes us from the very beginning, the very first accounts of Cancer we know of. It shows us the different beliefs related to cancer – you had “bad blood” or evil spirits or whatever. And it tells grippingly of how even physicians in the very darkest ages of medicine proclaimed: there is no cure. Even today, many forms of cancer still carry much stigma and fear.

But the story continues – to those deemed mad scientists for believing they could cure it. For those deemed crazy for financing such research. It poses extremely valuable insight about disease.

A disease had to be politically transformed before it could be scientifically transformed.

Emperor shows us how scientists, when they couldn’t understand the pathology of cancer, still managed to kick-start the road to a cure – but how, to make real improvements in the management, prevention and cure, scientists had to go back to the beginning. They had to discover exactly how it works.

Even more: scientists and doctors had to learn to co-operate.

Instead of trying to tailor disease to fit [the] medicine… [Learn] to tailor [the] medicine to fit the right disease.

The Emperor of All Maladies took me an extremely long time to read. It is interesting. It is fascinating. It is well-written. But it remains a scientific book, and it required very much attention. For example, I couldn’t read it while bored in class.

I had to look up many things. I had to re-read chapters. And I’ll re-read the book again a couple of years later, because I’m certain a lot of the information was above my intellectual ability.

I love this book – but would I recommend it to the layperson? Not necessarily. People without some kind of training in biology, research or statistics are likely to have a hard time. And if you have no interest in Cancer whatsoever, you will certainly have a hard time. But if you are interested? Then you’ll find a way to read the book, even if it takes you months.

This book was special to me. I wrote previously about the influences of cancer on my life and career. As a medical student, I gained a lot of information and wisdom reading this. I also sharpened my knowledge of statistics.

I now understand why finding cures to diseases is way, way, more difficult than just wanting desperately to succeed. I admire the hundreds of doctors and scientists who laboured in the war against Cancer so much more now.

It is an old complaint about the practice of medicine that it inures you to the idea of death. But when medicine inures you to the idea of life, to survival, then it has failed utterly.

*Note: All quotes from The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee


  1. I loved this book. I found it utterly fascinating to see how far we’ve come in what is a relatively short period of time, and it made me excited about what else will come over the course of my lifetime.

    I also love that last quotation in your post. So, so true.

    1. You were the first person to make me aware of this book, actually 🙂
      It also excited me about the possibilities for the near future, and there is quite a bit of inspiration.

  2. TrishaDM says:

    Wow! I so need to read this!

    1. You would definitely enjoy it, especially considering your future job 😀 Let me know what you thought of it when you’re done reading it.

  3. supahmommy says:

    Can I hire you to explain it all to me, because the book looks fascinating to be honest 🙂
    Cancer invades and kills so much more than just loved ones. I’m actually going to check this one out. Don’t tell anyone I wasn’t funny for 5 seconds 🙂

    1. Awesome! I’m glad you think of reading it. I’d be happy to explain stuff (although I might not be fully educated in it).

  4. I agree with supahmommy… it sounds fascinating… you should host a book club and explain it all to us!

    1. Ooooh… you mean like, an bloggy book club? Sounds interesting…

  5. Erin says:

    It does sound really interesting – might tackle it over the summer. Have you read ‘One In Three by Adam Wishart’? It’s also about the history and science of cancer (although it sounds like its more acessible), but weaves in the Wishart’s father’s struggle with the disease.

    1. I haven’t actually read it, no. I’ll definitely look into it!

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