Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Another malady, another Pulitzer: Indian Doc's book on cancer wins prize

WASHINGTON: She is an interpreter of maladies. He's the biographer of one of the great maladies of all time. Dr Siddharth Mukherjee, a New Delhi-born oncologist, has been awarded a Pulitzer Prizefor his book "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer," more than a decade afterJhumpa Lahiri won the prize for her similarly-titled collection of short stories. 

While the New York-based Lahiri won the 2000 Pulitzer for fiction, Dr Mukherjee, 41, who also lives in Big Apple, has been awarded the 2011 prize for general non-fiction. In its citation, the Pulitzer committee described the book, which has won rave reviews, as "an elegant inquiry, at once clinical and personal, into the long history of an insidious disease that, despite treatment breakthroughs, still bedevils medical science." 

Mukherjee joins a growing band of Indian-origin physicians who seem endowed with literary DNA. Among them, Dr Abraham Verghese, who began his writing career in the late 1980s with "My Own Country: A Doctor's story," which centered on the AIDS in the US, Dr Atul Gawande, a staff writer for the New Yorker and most recently author of 'The Checklist Manifesto," and Dr Deepak Chopra, the new age spiritual guru of mind-body dynamics, whose books are numerous. 

Mukherjee, who is currently serving as Assistant Professor of Medicine at Columbia University and is also a staff cancer physician at Columbia University Medical Center, began his writing career more recently after an encounter with a patient who had stomach cancer, who told him she was willing to go on fighting, but she needed to know what she was battling. He couldn't point her to a book that could explain cancer, and he began writing as an answer to her query. 

Mukherjee tells the stories of several cancer patients and survivors, while recognizing pioneering researchers, including the breakthrough provided by the Indian scientist, Yellapragada Subba Rao (1895-1948) who synthesized the Folic Acid for the first antifolate clinical trials conducted by Sidney Farber, who initiated the treatment of childhood leukemia. 

Largely unrecognized and forgotten both in India and in the US (where he spent much of his career), Subba Rao is also credited with developing Methotrexate, one of the first cancer chemotherapy agents and still in widespread clinical use. In his book, Mukherjee muses about why Subba Rao, who came from the provincial town of Bhimavaram in Andhra Pradesh, never got his due (his peers won the Nobel), describing him as "a reclusive, nocturnal, heavily accented vegetarian who lived in a one-room apartment downtown, befriended only by other nocturnal recluses." 

Mukherjee came from a slightly different India to a more welcoming US. After schooling in New Delhi (St. Columba's, five years junior to Shah Rukh Khan), he went on to major in biology atStanford University, before winning a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University where he earned a Ph.D. in immunology. After graduation, he attended Harvard Medical School to train as an internist and won an oncology fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is married to the artist Sarah Sze, who is herself an accomplished sculptor and a recipient of the 2003 MacArthur Fellows "genius grant." 

Incidentally, Lahiri and Mukherjee are not the first Pulitzer winners of Indian-origin. That honor belongs to Gobind Bihari Lal, a US-based science writer (and contemporary of Subba Rao), who shared the 1937 Pulitzer with three other Americans "for their coverage of science at the tercentenary of Harvard University," -- the same university which denied Subba Rao a regular faculty position forcing him to go work at Lederle Laboratories. 

Although the Pulitzer award carries a modest prize of $10,000, the book will get another publicity bump, adding to the already significant critical acclaim. Published by Simon and Schuster in 2010, it was nominated as a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and made the Top Ten list under various categories in The New York Times, Time magazine and The Oprah magazine. 

Among the finalists Mukherjee pipped in non-fiction category were Nicholas Carr for "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain," and SC Gwynne for "Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History."

1 comment:

  1. Must be an enjoyable read The Emperor of All Maladies, A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.


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