Ravenous: Otto Warburg, the Nazis, and the Search for the Cancer–Diet Connection

Liveright: Norton. May 2021. 384p. ISBN 9781631493157. $28.95. SCI
Otto Warburg (1883–1970) was considered the preeminent biochemist of his era, having been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1931. Apple (creative writing, Johns Hopkins Univ.; Schlepping Through the Alps), skillfully blends science writing with biography to present the story of this quirky, arrogant, and brilliant scientist, who revolutionized research on cancer and photosynthesis (how organisms use energy to make glucose). His theory, the Warburg Effect, demonstrates that cancer cells ravenously devour glucose in healthy cells. Ravenous is also an apt descriptor for Warburg himself, Apple writes, as he spent his life seeking adulation and ruining the career of anyone who took an opposing view. Warburg, who was Jewish, was able to continue his research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Germany during World War II because Hitler was interested in his research on cancer, which had killed his mother. Warburg fled to the United States once Hitler no longer needed him. After the war, he returned home to Germany to continue his research and resume his opulent lifestyle. Warburg’s experiments revealed conclusions that remain significant; for instance, he proved that consumption of sugars and carbohydrates is linked to diabetes and cancer. The book’s final chapters survey the work of Warburg’s 21st-century successors.
VERDICT An illuminating account that makes Warburg (the man and the scientist) accessible to general readers.
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