Saturday, November 12, 2022

The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (author), Dennis Boutsikaris (narrator)

Simon & Schuster Audio, ISBN 9781797147093, October 2022

Siddhartha Mukherjee is a cancer physcian and researcher, and gives us a fascinating history  of cell biology and cellurlar medicine. Though cancer is a central interest for him, he clearly makes the case that most of modern medicine, not just cancer research and treatment, is cellular medicine.

He starts in the 1600s, when English polymath Robert Hooke, and Ducth clost merchant Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (how did I not know before this that van Leeuwenhoek was a cloth merchant?) separately discovered the cell while working with early microscopes. Van Leeuwenhoek was mostly dismissed because he was a cloth merchant and didn't describe his discovery, or present it, in scientific terms. Hooke was much more respected, being a scientist, but his polymath interests made it harder for him to get a lot of attention for cells. When van Leeuwenhoek read one of Hooke's papers and wrote to him, Hooke had another person who had seen the same thing, and van Leeuwenhoek had a much more persuasive voice to make the case for what he'd seen.

This wasn't immediately as effective as one might think, but it did ensure that van Leeuwenhoek's work got more attention, was preserved, and eventually made him an important figure in the history of cell biology.

Mukherjee gives us an absorbing history of the advance of the science of cell biology, and the beginnings of cellular medicine, starting with the beginning of vaccination--in the Middle East, Africa, India, and China, before reports of it reached Europe, and Edward Jenner learned of milkmaids being apparently immune to smallpox after getting cowpox. It's a fascinating history, and revealing of how much we overlook in the condensed and biased versions of history we get in school.

The main focus of this book, though, is how cellular biology has permeated medical research and the practice of medicine, especially but not only in the research, understanding, and treatment of cancer. Cancer, of course, is not one disease, but many diseases, caused by mutant cells that have a lot in common but many differences, too. No one approach is effective against all cancers. Sometimes seemingly the same cancer in one person responds differently when it spreads to different parts of the body. Mukherjee tells stories of heartwarming victories, but also of heartbreaking losses in the battle against cancer in different patients.

In the course of this, he shares the intricacies of the immune system, its complexities and still-unfolding mysteries. The narrator, Dennis Boutsikaris, does an excellent job, witha  wondefully clear reading that expresses Mukherjee's passion for his topic,

Altogether, an excellent listen. Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.

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