Siddhartha Mukherjee

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Showing 1 - 3 of 3 annotations associated with Mukherjee, Siddhartha

Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Short Story


Jolted awake by a ringing telephone, the narrator (assumed to be Mukherjee) listens to his mother give a tearful report of his 83-year-old father’s waning health. Telling her that he will book the next flight from New York to New Delhi, Mukherjee’s mother wavers, regretting that her call now spurs him to purchase expensive airfare. In a tone of knowing sarcasm, Mukherjee writes, “The frugality of her generation had congealed into frank superstition: if I caught a flight now, I might dare the disaster into being.” Arriving in “sweltering, smog-choked Delhi,” Mukherjee joins his mother in a hospital’s I.C.U. A physician himself, Mukherjee notes the facility’s piteously tumbledown conditions, its crumbling floors and exposed utilities, jibing that, if one were to trip on the concrete rubble, “a neurologist would be waiting conveniently for you around the corner.” No doubt accustomed to the comfortable amenities of American hospitals, Mukherjee magnifies the miserable disarray of the Delhi facility—a defective heartrate monitor, a fractured suction catheter, a hospital bed with cracked wheels, a delivery van used as an improvised ambulance. This world, far from New York, is mired in seemingly eternal disrepair: “Delhi had landed upside down. The city was broken. This hospital was broken. My father was broken.”

These would seem to be the smug observations of a dismayed tourist were it not for Mukherjee’s thoughts on the intricate and noiseless machinery of homeostasis, the cohesive force that sustains internal constancy. “There’s a glassy transparency to things around us that work,” he writes, “made visible only when the glass is cracked and fissured. […] To dwell inside a well-functioning machine is to be largely unaware of its functioning.” As Mukherjee witnesses the spiraling decline of his father’s health within a deteriorating, dismally ill-equipped healthcare system, he focuses on the regularities of equilibrium by juxtaposing the homeostasis of healthcare institutions and human bodies. Mukherjee relates a memorable story from his early career when he staffed nightshifts at an urban clinic, where his colleague, an older nurse, stacked oxygen masks, oiled oxygen valves, and arranged beds. He belittled the nurse’s exacting preparations as an “obsessive absurdity” but, when his first patient arrived with an asthma spasm, he realized how critical the clinic’s flawless order was to his life-saving efforts: “The knob of the oxygen turned effortlessly—who would have noticed that it had just been oiled?—and, when I reached for an I.V. line, a butterfly needle, just the right size and calibre, appeared exactly when I needed it so that I could keep my eyes trained on the thin purplish vein in the crook of the elbow.” Had these things not been prepared, had they not been finely tuned for use, had an instrument been misplaced, would Mukherjee’s patient have lived? He experienced an example of institutional homeostasis, conducive to optimum medical care, which facilitated essential processes to occur successfully without mishap.  

Now in the New Delhi hospital, Mukherjee notes that its medical staff has “to settle for a miserable equilibrium. Amid scraps and gaps and shortages, they had managed to stabilize [my father].” He arrives at another stark realization, “I had versed myself in the reasons that my father had ended up in the hospital. It took me longer to ask the opposite question: What had kept my father, for so long, from acute decline?” Recollecting his father’s life at home in between hospitalizations, Mukherjee references a different kind of homeostasis that helped to prolong his life. For example, when his father was unable to go to the local market to haggle for fish and cauliflower, the vendors came to his home for usual business— “The little rituals saved him. They […] restored his dignity, his need for constancy.” Mukherjee accentuates the protean workings of homeostasis, its variegated forms that sustain the patterns of normalcy that give regularity and meaning to human life—indeed, equilibrium is not only an infinitude of minute chemical and biological factors, but familiar ease in a world that one knows and loves. Equilibrium, however rigorously maintained, succumbs to decay. Mukherjee aptly quotes Philip Larkin’s poem, “The Old Fools”: “At death you break up: the bits that were you / Start speeding away from each other for ever / With no one to see.” Mukherjee notes that the experience of his father’s decline was not so much observing him disintegrate into a similar kind of molecular dust, as imaged in Larkin’s verse, as it was his solidity upheld by homeostatic forces, a steady chugging of biological gears that made intricate compromises to sustain his deteriorating body.

After his father emerges from the coma, Mukherjee enlists curious pedestrians to help lift him into a makeshift ambulance. His father’s jostled body resembles a “botched Indian knockoff of an ecstatic Bernini.” The thematic kernel of Mukherjee’s narrative, homeostasis, draws scrutiny not only to the experiences of individual bodies but the systems and institutions that heal them, to the material environments in which fragile bodies are cared for, repaired, and rehabilitated. “The hospitals that work, the ambulances that lift patients smoothly off the ground: we neglect the small revolutions that maintain these functions,” reflects Mukherjee, “but when things fall apart we are suddenly alert to the chasms left behind.”

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Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay


This thoughtful essay from the author of The Emperor of All Maladies expounds on information, uncertainty, and imperfection in the medical setting. The author recalls witnessing a difficult operation when he was a medical student. The attending surgeon admonished the operating room team, "Medicine asks you to make perfect decisions with imperfect information" (p.5). This essay is constructed around that idea as the author shares three personal principles that have guided him throughout his medical career.
     Law One: A strong intuition is much more powerful than a weak test. (p. 22)
     Law Two: "Normals" teach us rules; "outliers" teach us laws. (p. 38)
     Law Three: For every perfect medical experiment, there is a perfect human bias. (p.54)

He views the medical world as a "lawless, uncertain" place and stresses that biomedicine is a "softer science" than chemistry or physics. Clinical wisdom, in his opinion, is imperfect, fluid, and abstract whereas the knowledge base of other basic sciences is concrete, fixed, and certain. He laments, "My medical education had taught me plenty of facts, but little about the spaces that live between facts" (p. 6).

His own "laws" of medicine are actually laws of imperfection. Clinical diagnosis can be thought of as a "probability game" where human bias creeps into the process. And ultimately common sense trumps pure statistical reasoning. Woven into the discussion are considerations on a variety of topics - children with autism, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, genomics, radical masectomy, and randomized, double-blind studies. Nods to Lewis Thomas (The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher), Thomas Bayes (Bayes' Theorem), and Johannes Kepler (Kepler's Laws of planetary motion) fit in nicely with the thrust of the treatise.

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise


This is a huge and wonderful book about cancer, the collection of diseases that sickens people all over the globe and kills many of them. An epigraph to the book states, “A quarter of all American deaths, and about 15 percent of all deaths worldwide, will be attributed to cancer,” but the book also describes medical advances that now heal, prevent, or palliate most forms of cancer.

Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher, has several strong themes. He sees cancer as an affliction with a long history, a story worthy of a biography; indeed recent discoveries show it to be rooted in our genes (although external factors such as viruses, asbestos, and tobacco smoke can cause genetic disruption). The story of cancer implies a surrounding triangle, the stories of sick people, treating physicians, and biological researchers, all of which Mukherjee artfully weaves across 472 pages. Cancer has Rohrschach blot qualities: depending on time, place, and role in life, humans have perceived different attributes of cancer. As the book ends, however, there is a coalescence of scientific understanding that is satisfying—although there is certainly more to be learned and we are all still vulnerable to genetic errors and, of course, we are intractably mortal.

Another strand is the nature of stories themselves, their twists and turns, presumed early solutions, and personal and social values embedded in them. Mukherjee threads throughout the book the case of a contemporary kindergarten teacher, Carla Reed, who has a leukemia. He bookends his text with ancient Persian Queen Atossa with (presumably) breast cancer. Reed, healed by the end of the book, was Mukherjee’s patient; Atossa was described by Herodotus: both suffered emotional turmoil because of their disease.  Mukherjee understands the affective dimensions of disease for patients and caregivers alike; literature represents these in various ways, and he quotes in his chapter epigraphs and in his prose many writers who describe human experience deeply: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Susan Sontag, Charles Dickens, Thomas Mann, William Carlos Williams, Carlo Levi, and Italo Calvino, to name a few.

The primary story, however, is the interplay of cancer and a large cast of observers, investigators, doctors, scientists, activists, and government officials. Sidney Farber and Mary Lasker dominate the first 100 pages with their two-decade war against cancer. While surgery—historically dramatic and disfiguring—had been a mainstay for treatment of cancer, Farber pursued a biochemical route, which elaborated into chemotherapy, the second major approach of the late 20th century.

Mukherjee also explains ancient views, Hippocrates’, Galen’s humors, Vasealius’ anatomy, Hunter’s stages, Lister’s antisepsis, and Röntgen’s X-rays, which became the third major approach. By 1980, however, the American “War on Cancer” had not been won.

Further advances in cellular biology and genetics would be needed to make targeted molecular therapy possible.  Mukherjee tells this complicated story clearly and engagingly, showing the human investigators to be personable and dogged in their pursuits.  

Another important approach is prevention. The biostatistical work of Doll and Hill, for example, showed the links between tobacco and lung cancer. Screening, such as Pap smears and mammograms, also saved lives, but the basic cellular understanding still eluded investigators.

The final 150 pages explain the search for and discovery of genetic factors, specifically oncogenes. Harold Varmus and J. Michael Bishop were the leaders, winning a Nobel Prize in 1989. Bert Vogelstein, Judah Folkman, Robert Weinberg and Douglas Hanahan took the work further, opening the doors for such drugs as Herceptin, Gleevec, and Avastin. 

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