Doctor, scientist, writer

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Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of “The Emperor of All Maladies,” received the Lewis Thomas Prize at Rockefeller University and explained how he turns medicine into literature


  • Siddhartha Mukherjee’s latest book is “The Gene: An Intimate History.” Photo: © Deborah Feingold via

  • Photo: Via

“He intertwines scientific, medical, cultural, political and literary threads to weave an intellectually and emotionally compelling tale.”

Rockefeller University president Richard lifton, on Siddhartha Mukherjee

Academics and scientists aren’t known for writing engaging narratives, but Siddhartha Mukherjee happens to be incredibly good at it.

In his books and essays, the New Delhi-born oncologist is able to render concepts like gene editing and metastasis into stories that lay readers can comprehend, enjoy and be moved by. He does so by telling these big stories intimately through a human lens.

On Monday evening, Rockefeller University recognized Mukherjee for this feat and presented him with the Lewis Thomas Prize for writing about science. “Lewis Thomas had a clear influence on Dr. Mukherjee’s thinking and professional trajectory,” said the university’s president, Richard Lifton, in his introduction of Mukherjee.

The prize was established in 1993 to honor Thomas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and physician. Since then, Lifton said, the award has honored individuals who, through their writing, introduce scientific knowledge in public discourse, and particularly those whose writing evokes reflection, revelation and wonder of the natural world.

The Spark of an Exceptional Career

The event that sparked Mukherjee’s intellectual curiosity took place when he was nine. A cousin who suffered from neck and mouth cancer visited his home. At the dinner table, she would not open her mouth and Mukherjee came to understand that she was ashamed of the disfigurement to her body caused by the cancer. The experience stayed with him, motivating him to specialize in oncology at Harvard Medical School.

In his first book, “The Emperor of All Maladies,” Mukherjee tells the story of cancer, tracing the history of the disease from its first mention on papyrus in 2500 BC to the modern era of molecular genetics and targeted therapies. For his work, he won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

“He intertwines scientific, medical, cultural, political and literary threads to weave an intellectually and emotionally compelling tale,” Lifton said, adding that Mukherjee accomplished that by imposing one rule in his writing: the reader should go no more than five pages without encountering a sympathetic human character.

Telling the Story of Cancer

His inspiration for the book came after a troubling interaction with a patient. During his fellowship, a woman with an aggressive abdominal cancer told him, “I’m willing to go on, but I would need you to tell me what I’m battling.” Mukherjee was embarrassed. He could not produce a road map of his discipline and he couldn’t recommend a book that explained what she was going through. A succinct history of cancer had not been written, so he decided that he would tell that story through the perspectives of doctors, patients and researchers.

In conversation Monday evening with Thomas Sakmar, a professor and senior physician at Rockefeller, Mukherjee discussed his writing process.

“I think what was helpful to me was not telling anyone about it while I was writing,” he said. He added that he doesn’t compartmentalize between being a writer and being a scientist and doctor. All of these projects were continual and built off one another.

“When I would see a patient, that patient would be a reminder of a history and a future. If that meant writing about that patient or making an experimental treatment come alive, or failing and grieving — it was all a part of the same story,” he said. “It was just being open, and keeping yourself open, to the experiences.”

Being “More Present”

Before Mukherjee sits down to write, he said he spends a lot of time in a “dreamy pre-space.”

“I don’t discuss my thoughts during this time. If someone asks me what I’m writing, I’ll say, ‘I don’t know,’” he explained. “For a long time, I won’t do much, but I’ll linger with an idea and play with it. I’m not sure what’s going to come out.”

During that time, he said he tries to be more present and not cheapen experiences by interrogating what it means to be doing what he’s doing in any particular moment. Once he knows what he wants to say, the writing comes easily.

Since publishing “Maladies,” Mukherjee became a professor at Columbia University, where he practices medicine and conducts research. He’s subsequently written “The Laws of Medicine” and “The Gene: An Intimate History.”

Currently, he’s working toward better treatments for cancers of the blood that might also benefit those with osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. He hopes this will inspire more writing. His many readers no doubt share that hope.

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