Indian-born American physician Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer-winning “biography’’ of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, has won the £10,000 prestigious Guardian First Book award beating four formidable contenders, including Amy Waldman's acclaimed The Submission, about the post-9/11 Islamophobia in America.
The judges hailed the book for its “lively’’ and “moving’’ treatment of a subject that people normally dread to talk about. The chair of judges, Lisa Allardice, Editor of Guardian Review, described it as a "remarkable and unusual achievement".
"He has managed to balance such a vast amount of information with lively narratives, combining complicated science with moving human stories. Far from being intimidating, it's a compelling, accessible book, packed full of facts and anecdotes that you know you will remember, and which you immediately want to pass on to someone else,’’ she said.
Dr. Mukherjee, who is assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and is now writing a second book, called it “a great and distinct honour". "You never write books to win awards – they are immensely gratifying but unexpected," he said.
"In recognising The Emperor of All Maladies, the judges have also recognised the extraordinary courage and resilience of the men and women, who struggle with illness, and the men and women who struggle to treat illnesses. I am delighted and honoured to join a formidable list of writers and scholars – Zadie Smith, Alexandra Harris, Petina Gappah, and Alex Ross among them."
The book, which traces the history of cancer from the first recorded mastectomy in 500 BC and was initially rejected by publishers, who said nobody would like to read about cancer, became an instant sensation winning a series of prestigious awards including a Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction.
Dr. Mukherjee has described it as "an attempt to enter the mind of this immortal illness, to understand its personality, to demystify its behaviour". It was inspired by his encounters with cancer patients who wanted to know what was “the story’’ of their illness.
“Patients would come up and ask: 'What is the story?' They were looking for a much deeper story, not their own particular medical history, but the larger context – what the origins of the disease were, and what would happen next. What the future was," he said.
It was a question, he said, he found particularly haunting. Scientists could understand the future better by understanding the past.