The title, Ravenous, refers, in part, to the connection Nobel-prize winning biochemist Otto Warburg made early in his career between cancer cells and metabolism. In a process that has come to be known as the Warburg effect, cancer cells switch from prioritizing the burning of oxygen, a highly efficient energetic process, to fermentation, a less efficient process that requires much more food as input. Thus, cancer cells become ravenous.
But it isn’t only at a cellular level that the book’s title works. Throughout his career, Warburg himself was ravenous for adulation. He waged battles with anyone who found errors in his work. He was a terrible boss and a worse colleague. He wasn’t surprised by his Nobel Prize; he considered it long overdue. Even as Warburg’s theories about cancer and metabolism fell out of favor when new molecular technologies shed light on the genetic basis for some cancers, Warburg insisted he was right. And, it turns out, he was. Recently, scientists have circled back to Warburg’s ideas, discovering that cancer and diet are intimately connected.
The first half of the book takes place as the Nazi party, ravenous for power, is ascendant. Hitler, perhaps because his mother died from the disease, was obsessed with cancer. Author Sam Apple convincingly lays out the case that Hitler’s belief in the connection between diet and health may have been the reason that Warburg, who was half-Jewish, was tolerated by the Reich. And Apple documents how Hitler’s ideas about cancer spread throughout the Nazi party in ways both bizarre and dystopic: In addition to the atrocities that took place there, the Dachau death camp was an organic farm. One party officer blithely noted that concentration camp prisoners rarely had cancer; perhaps it was their diet?
Apple adeptly depicts Otto Warburg as a man of contradictions. He was a half-Jewish, likely-gay man who nonetheless survived World War II in Germany. He led a lab that continued ground-breaking science for much of the war, even as scientific institutions around him were disintegrating. He was lauded for his scientific prowess, yet he ignored evidence that didn’t suit his theories. His ideas about cancer were well ahead of their time, but his convictions about photosynthesis were doomed to the scientific trash bin of the past. Otto Warburg was every bit as imperious, obstinate, and entitled as he was brilliant. A man like Warburg, Apple has shown, was perhaps the only muse through which the story of twentieth century cancer research — with all its missteps and advances, fashions and fights — could be given its due.
Ravenous is a page-turner, and much of its success is due to Apple’s fluid, approachable writing. In less-talented hands, the book’s science and history could easily become pretentious and dull. Instead, it is a joy to read and an utterly fascinating tale.
Juli Berwald Ph.D. is a science writer living in Austin, Texas and the author of Spineless: the Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. Her book on the future of coral will be published in 2021.