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

  • Review
By – May 17, 2021

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.

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