An adept science writer, George Johnson found his latest subject when his wife was diagnosed with a strange form of uterine cancer. Like most people touched by this disease, Johnson wanted to know why. His pursuit of answers took him from the paleo-oncology of dinosaurs (yes, dinosaurs got cancer) to cutting-edge papers of the American Association for Cancer Research, from the MD Anderson Cancer Center to studies of fetal development and how the growing embryo is both like and unlike a tumor. In between, Johnson looks at mutation and mitosis, radon and epidemiology. If you can forget the horrors for a moment, the science here is fascinating. Is cancer a disease? A “disease of information”? A process? Is the modern lifestyle to blame? Chemicals? Genetics? And how great is any given risk factor—and what are they? Johnson finds a lot of facts, a lot of data, a lot of contradictions. His book presents cancer like a big Rorschach's blot: some kind of picture is there, but what it is, is open to competing interpretations. So far, no one has hit on quite the right one. But there are new theories all the time.
Written more than fifteen years ago and now required reading for many first-year medical students, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is a seminal work in the field of medical anthropology. Telling the heart-wrenching story of Lia Lee, a young Hmong child with severe epilepsy, her American doctors, her family and Hmong community, this is a case study in cultural misunderstanding. Incredibly well-researched and nuanced, yet with a compelling and emotional narrative, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down raises fundamental questions about the purpose of medicine and the nature of healing.
These days, scientists all over the world use cells raised in culture to answer questions fundamental to modern medicine. They are the backbone of basic science research. But where, or more importantly who did those cells originally come from? The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African-American woman living in Baltimore, the doctors and scientists at John’s Hopkins who took and used her cells, and Henrietta’s family who continued to live in poverty. Thought-provoking and assiduously researched, this is a story of discovery and disparity, business and ethics, science and equity.