Just like how he established a multifaceted career as an author, physician, and researcher, Siddhartha Mukherjee didn’t settle on one type of story when he decided to write a book about cancer.
Instead, Mukherjee wove together insights into science, medicine and history, along with his personal memories to create his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. It proved to be a successful formula that he’s also used to create accessible, bestselling books about genetics and cell biology.
“I thought, why don’t we put everything into one big pot and boil it, and that’s how these books came about,” Mukherjee told the audience during the June 7 Dialogues at Janelia.
This unique blend of science and emotion was on display during Mukherjee’s hour-long conversation with Janelia Executive Director Ron Vale. In front of a full house, Mukherjee touched on his family history of mental illness, his relationships with influential mentors, and his work in cancer research.
While writing and science may seem worlds apart, for Mukherjee, they naturally go together. As a young doctor, Mukherjee started journaling about his experiences before realizing that a book detailing the history of cancer –a disease that touches nearly everyone – didn’t exist.
He said he was driven to write by a desire to “let the stories out” and a motivation common to writers and scientists. Mukherjee said both groups will give you a similar answer when you ask what drives them: “What else could I do?”
“It’s not as if you have a set of options and you decide to not write,” Mukherjee said. “Mostly you write or to some extent, you are doing science, because that’s the only thing you know how to do.”
The next Dialogues public lecture, with Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus of medicine and mindfulness expert, will be held October 23 at Janelia. If you live in the Washington, DC, area and would like to receive announcements about upcoming Dialogues events, please join our mailing list.