Doing ground-breaking cancer research and writing a Pulitzer Prize-winning book are probably amongst the toughest things in the world but Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee has done both. Now, he is collaborating with filmmaker Ken Burns on a documentary inspired by his powerful book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. The film will be directed by award-winning filmmaker Barak Goodman and air on pbs in Spring 2015.
Mukherjee, 43, spent a decade on writing the 600-page book about mankind’s enemy—the all-powerful emperor, cancer, “a lethal shape-shifting entity imbued with such penetrating metaphorical, medical, scientific and political potency” that it continues to outwit the world. In the documentary, Mukherjee is collaborating with Stand Up To Cancer and WETA, Washington DC, to create nothing short of a national conversation about cancer with public screenings and online discussions across the US.
The Emperor of All Maladies is a beautifully written, passionate account of a lethal, elusive, ‘shape-shifting’ foe: cancer.
With cancer, the fight seems very personal for Mukherjee. As The New York Times put it, “It’s an epic story that he seems compelled to tell, the way a passionate young priest might attempt a biography of Satan”. What Mukherjee had started as a journal for a year turned into a full odyssey of the crab. Mukherjee calls it “a larger exploratory journey that carried me into the depths not only of science and medicine, but of culture, history, literature and politics, into cancer’s past and into its future”. This remarkable book won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, among other awards.
Mukherjee is an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and a cancer physician at the CU/NYU Presbyterian Hospital. He grew up in New Delhi and studied at St Columba’s. His father Sibeswar Mukherjee worked for Mitsubishi and his mother Chandana was a teacher. He told me, “My memory of my household is of one immersed in books and music. I have a very intimate relationship with Bengali literature, particularly Tagore, and my interest besides reading then was music.” Mukherjee is married to Sarah Sze, a MacArthur Genius award-winning sculptor whose work is in major museums. He says, “Sarah is the brains and soul of our family and she practises a very innovative, inventive kind of sculpture that challenges our perception of what sculpture is, what art is.” They have two daughters, Leela, 7, and Aria, almost 4.
Recently he delivered the commencement address at Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s 2013 commencement and academic convocation, where he received the medal for outstanding contribution to biomedical science. His words give a clue to his thinking. “Science,” he said, “is among the most profoundly human of our activities. Far from being subsumed by the dehumanising effects of technology, science in fact remains our last stand against it.”
( Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist and blogs at Lassi with Lavina; www.lassiwithlavina.com)