Siddhartha Mukherjee Receives Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing About Science

Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, DPhil, an associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, is shown.
Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, DPhil, associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (Credit: Deborah Feingold)

From the very beginning, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s career as a hematologist, oncologist, and researcher has been heavily influenced by Lewis Thomas, the noted physician and researcher who was a celebrated poet and essayist. 

“Lewis Thomas was one of my childhood idols,” Mukherjee, MD, DPhil, an associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, told CUIMC Today. “I’ve written a lot about Lewis Thomas. I wrote my medical school application on Lewis Thomas.”

Like Lewis Thomas, Mukherjee became a writer who has gained worldwide recognition and many prizes. In 2011, Mukherjee won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for his bestselling book “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” He followed that up with the critically acclaimed books “The Laws of Medicine: Field Notes from an Uncertain Science” and “The Gene: An Intimate History,” while also writing articles for the New York Times and the New Yorker.

Mukherjee’s journey with Lewis Thomas came full circle Monday when he received the 2019 Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing About Science, an honor bestowed by Rockefeller University annually since 1993. Thomas himself was the inaugural recipient. “The prize was a great surprise, a great honor, but in some ways, it feels as though I’ve been in a conversation with Lewis Thomas for so long,” Mukherjee said. “It’s as if this conversation has been somehow completed.” 

That conversation may be over, but Mukherjee’s literary life is flourishing. He’s working on two new books and plans to issue a 10-year update to “The Emperor of All Maladies” with new chapters to continue the story.

His book “The Gene,” which lays out a history of genetics, is being adapted into a PBS film by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns.

 

On the research side, Mukherjee has two large clinical trials underway, the results of which will be announced in papers soon. And he still sees patients, applying the same diligence and compassion to their care as he did before his career as a best-selling author.

 

Curiously, Mukherjee never set out to be a writer. In fact, his first book, “The Emperor of All Maladies,” resulted from a patient’s question.

 

“In the middle of her chemotherapy she said, ‘Where are we going? And how did we end up here?’” he recalled. “It was a question about her particular cancer, but it sparked an interest in just trying to figure out what that roadmap looked like, how we got here, how far we will have to go, and where we are in this war against cancer.”

 

So, he began a “personal diary of notes” in a bid to answer those questions. That journal grew into his Pulitzer winner. “I really began to write to think my way through medicine,” Mukherjee said. “I’m one of those people who write to think. I don’t write to write.”