IN his 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee quotes Hippocrates: “The art of medicine is long, and life is short; opportunity fleeting; the experiment perilous; judgment flawed.” The ancient Greek physician is right, but that never stopped Mukherjee, 47, from engaging with medicine at multiple levels. As a haematologist and oncologist who trained at Harvard Medical School, his research focuses on the link between stem cells and cancer cells. In the past two decades, Mukherjee’s lab has studied the behaviour of these cells and identified therapies for certain cancers in a clinical setting.
What sets him apart from his peers is his remarkable ability to demystify medicine for the rest of us. He did this first in The Emperor of All Maladies, when he took on the behemoth that is cancer, and explored the way it has impacted human history, from the time of the ancient Egyptians, to cutting-edge technologies practiced in the best cancer research facilities around the world. In 2016, he delved into the personal genetic history of his family in The Gene: An Intimate History, a book that looks into the impact of genes in determining one’s quality of life, from traits to mental illness.
On Tuesday evening, as part of Express Adda, a series of informal interactions organised by The Indian Express Group with those at the centre of change, Mukherjee will speak about the questions that drive him to excellence — and help us with answers to the deepest mysteries of life. He will be in conversation with The Indian Express Deputy Editor Seema Chishti and Senior Editor Paromita Chakrabarti.
One does not simply read Mukherjee to know about the history of certain aspects of medicine and disease, but also to glimpse into the mind of a doctor and an author who is constantly looking to rewrite the book. His writings have comforted many a soul. In The Gene, Mukherjee criticises the IQ test as a measure of intelligence. Instead, he endorses a theory, introduced by Howard Gardner, of multiple intelligences, which asserts that the results of IQ tests for determining general intelligence do not represent intelligence in the real world.
Born in a Bengali family in New Delhi, Mukherjee attended St Columba’s School, where he won the school’s highest award, the ‘Sword of Honour’, in 1989. He went on to study biology at Stanford University, where he worked in Nobel Laureate Paul Berg’s laboratory, defining cellular genes that change the behaviours of cancer cells. He then moved to the University of Oxford, after winning the Rhodes Scholarship for doctoral research into viral antigens. He later moved back to the US, where he attended Harvard Medical School, earning his Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree in 2000. Currently, Mukherjee is an Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Haematology/ Oncology, at the Columbia University Medical Center, New York City.