Got a vacation coming up but not sure what books to toss in your beach bag? STAT has you covered with a roundup of great reads in the realms of health, medicine, and the life sciences.
We reached out to our readers for their favorites, plus we gathered staff picks and recommendations from notable figures in the field.
“House on Fire: The Fight to Eradicate Smallpox” by William Foege
Smallpox eradication is one of the greatest accomplishments of humanity. But neither success nor the route to success were clear. Dr. Foege, whose role in smallpox eradication was pivotal, narrates how critically important innovation is to success — from using simple needles to deliver vaccines, to new ways of deciding who to vaccinate.
— Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
“The Mismeasure of Man” by Stephen Jay Gould
A seminal reminder of how hubris, culture, and bias can corrupt the scientific method.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium
“Invisible Frontiers: The Race to Synthesize a Human Gene” by Stephen Hall
It’s a great book about the dawn of the biotech era — the origins of Biogen, Genentech, and Chiron and their race to clone the insulin gene.
— Robert Langer, Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
“The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World” by David Deutsch
“The Beginning of Infinity” is a one-of-a-kind book that took my breath away and left a permanent mark on my approach to the world. The author, David Deutsch, is a brilliant physicist who thinks broadly and deeply about the universe, and especially about what makes humans unique as rational beings who can change the world in remarkable ways. He has deep insights into topics as diverse as quantum theory (his own area of expertise), psychology, morals, politics, and aesthetics, and he somehow links these in powerful and surprising ways.
— Dr. Jeffrey Flier, dean of Harvard Medical School
“Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel Pink
The notions of autonomy, mastery, and purpose put forward by Pink apply well to understanding the psychology of physicians. Leaders need to understand how tapping into the intrinsic drive and motivation of health care providers is essential to make needed change happen: to improve quality, engage patients, and manage costs more effectively. This is a must-read for leading change in health care.
— Dr. Vivian Lee, dean of the University of Utah School of Medicine and CEO of University of Utah Health Care
“Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior” by Jonathan Weiner
This is a book about one of the early triumphs of modern neuroscience, the linking of specific genes to specific behaviors. It describes how very elegant experiments could reveal the genetic control knobs on very complex things like memory. The book describes how the dawn of molecular biology led to new techniques and approaches that opened up new fronts on understanding the mind, delving into the personalities and idiosyncrasies of some of the major players of the time, with a focus on Seymour Benzer, a great biologist who worked on flies at Caltech.
— Ed Boyden, head of the MIT Media Lab’s synthetic neurobiology group
“Blondes in Venetian Paintings, the Nine-Banded Armadillo, and Other Essays in Biochemistry” by Konrad Bloch
I learned intermediary metabolism from Bloch, and in this very post-genomic age, I find myself dazzled by the practical elegance of biochemistry. Plus, I have just returned from Venice, where Bloch’s peek into the basis of those blondes is ever-satisfying.
— Vicki Sato, Harvard Business School professor and Boston-area mentor to life sciences entrepreneurs
“Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues” by Dr. Martin J. Blaser
A very well-written and very informative book on the impact of microbes on health and disease. It becomes progressively clear that changes in our microbiome contribute to a vast spectrum of diseases, such as autoimmunity, obesity, and even neurological diseases, and this book beautifully leads us through several decades of research on this topic. It is difficult to find books that are at the same time so entertaining and informative.
— Chantal Kuhn, Boston
“Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness” by Pete Earley
This is my first recommendation when colleagues, friends, or family members ask, “What’s a good book for learning about mental health?” The book excels as a personal narrative (a father’s emotional struggle for finding the best mental health treatment for his son), and as a journalist, Earley investigates why prisons are becoming mental health facilities.
— David Ruvolo, St. Louis, Mo.
“Herding Hemingway’s Cats: Understanding How Our Genes Work” by Kat Arney
In this book, Kat Arney takes the reader on a journey through the past and present of the science of genetics, exploring the key discoveries and concepts that are beginning to explain the complex processes through which the hereditary information in our genes constructs us “in all our wobbly, unique, and mysterious glory.” It’s a daunting challenge, but Arney succeeds with a book that is accessible and entertaining without ever taking its subject for granted. Amid the descriptions of phenomena such as junk DNA, gene splicing, imprinting, and RNA interference, there are many fascinating glimpses into the personalities, motivations, and, occasionally, rivalries of the key scientists who are driving forward understanding of how our genes work.
— Paul Browne, Cambridge, United Kingdom
“The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee
This book provides a fascinating and even thrilling account of the history of cancer and its human interactions, ranging from ancient surgeries to modern treatment and curative efforts. Mukherjee combines his experience as a practicing oncologist with his knowledge of the science of cancer to provide a truly biographical account of this very personal foe. I used it in an undergraduate seminar series for biomedical students who found it very accessible, often reading ahead on assignments because the book is so engrossing.
— Curt Phifer, Natchitoches, La.
“Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine” by Erika Janik
An engaging read on the history about the roots of patent medicine, chiropractic, herbal medicine, patent medicine, phrenology, and the like, in contrast to what is now known as conventional or Western medicine, which — in the late 1800s through early 1900s — consisted largely of toxic therapies (administration of heavy metals or bloodletting) that were of limited effectiveness and that were only available to patients living in urban areas. This historical context remains remarkably relevant today: lingering distrust of “modern” medicine in some patient subpopulations, rural and urban trends in health care delivery models, and alternative medicine marketing tactics all have origins in events that occurred over a century ago.
— Robyn Perrin, Madison, Wis.
“Bleed, Blister and Purge: A History Of Medicine On The American Frontier” by Dr. Volney Steele
I picked this book up in Tombstone, Ariz., during an epic family vacation with my wife and kids to the Southwest. With rattlesnakes, relentless heat, and the occasional rowdy horse, I could imagine that illness or injury made settling in the region only for the stout of heart. This book validated my thinking on the matter, but also describes medicine coming of age during the era of American expansion.
— Raymond MacDougall, Bethesda, Md.
“The Care of Strangers: The Rise of America’s Hospital System” by Charles E. Rosenberg
This fascinating book covers in detail how social history informed American medicine. Hospitals in early America were a far cry from what most would recognize today, serving as refuges of last resort for the “poor and worthy” and commonly seen as a building to go to die in — be it in the short term, or after several years of captivity. Exploring the historical reasons behind the growth retraces the steps to where we are today and where we might, or perhaps ought, to go in the future.
— Gregory Holder, Fort Myers, Fla.
“Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande
My dad just began hospice care, so it’s a very timely and personal topic for me, but I feel every one of us could benefit from the wonderful knowledge in this book.
— Mollie Ball, Bend, Ore.
“Dark Remedy: The Impact Of Thalidomide and Its Revival as a Vital Medicine” by Rock Brynner and Trent Stephens
This book traces the history of thalidomide, a drug developed during the 1950s that wound up being one of the most teratogenic agents (substances that cause birth defects) ever marketed. What sets this book apart from others that cover similar territory is the simultaneous examination of the aftermath of the scandal in multiple countries, and how difficult it was for patients to get, and journalists to share, information. The book does a nice job of explaining how the most reviled drug in history wound up being used to treat people with leprosy, and eventually went on to became a mainstay in the treatment of multiple myeloma.
— Stewart Lyman, Seattle
“And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic” by Randy Shilts
A human saga, “And the Band Played On” recalls in gripping detail the real-word tragedy of the AIDS epidemic as it unfolded, and the ways in which society at large repeatedly fumbled in mounting an appropriate response. Shilts empowers readers to believe we need not let this tragic history repeat itself. It is a must-read, particularly for those engaged in public health, life sciences, or government.
— David Opp, Boston
“Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” by Mary Roach
Though cadavers might seem a macabre subject for summer reading, Mary Roach makes dead bodies fascinating and incredibly entertaining in “Stiff.” One of the early scenes — plastic surgeons fine-tuning their craft on cadaver heads placed delicately in roasting pans — is a brilliantly written bit of writing that’s always stuck with me.
— Megan Thielking, reporter and Morning Rounds writer
“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi
A man dying of cancer probes the meaning of life — what could be more cliched? Right? But in the delicate neurosurgeon’s hands of Paul Kalanithi, this memoir is searingly honest, beautifully crafted, and, well, meaningful. Medicine should heed his insights about how health care dehumanizes both caregivers and patients.
— Gideon Gil, managing editor
“The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy” by Seth Mnookin
Seth Mnookin interviewed parents who don’t believe in vaccines or who think vaccines are dangerous and was able to show how they were seeing the world and what motivated them. Very often reporting is either pro-vaccines, with no anti-voices, or anti-vaccines, with the pro-side discounted. The book is pro-vaccine, but he captured a fuller picture of the issues than I’d seen elsewhere.
— Helen Branswell, senior writer
“The Plague” by Albert Camus
It highlights the moral, psychological, and emotional toll that a disease epidemic imposes on individuals and society. The prose is simple but powerful and elegant.
— Tony Fong, multiplatform editor
“The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World” By James Shreeve
I was in the second grade at the height of the race between the government and biotech entrepreneur Craig Venter to sequence the human genome. Over the years, I pieced together the broad contours of what happened, but I didn’t really get it until I read James Shreeve’s excellent book reported from inside Venter’s company. As we close in two decades after the action, Shreeve’s fast-moving, funny narrative still feels fresh. It’s packed full of details never reported at the time that helped shape the genome-happy world we’ve inherited.
— Rebecca Robbins, reporter
“Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America” by Jill Leovy
This book isn’t your standard health or medicine book. But if you believe that the homicide rate among black men amounts to a public health problem, then this book will help you understand why that rate is so stubbornly and disproportionately high. Leovy weaves together research into why violence persists in some communities and the story of the investigation into one murder, that of the son of a Los Angeles police officer. The book is heartbreaking and painful, and necessary.
— Andrew Joseph, reporter
“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler
A surprising and moving novel about scientists who raised a chimp named Fern as one of their children, treating her in every way like a daughter — until she started to act out and was sent away to a lab. The story is told through the eyes of Rosemary, Fern’s sister, and traces the shattering effect this social science experiment had on the family across the decades.
— Stephanie Simon, managing editor
“The Death of Cancer” by Dr. Vincent DeVita and Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn
It provides interesting historical insight into the war on cancer from someone who was on the front lines. It’s well-written and so easy to read.
— Karen Weintraub, contributing writer
“Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness” by Susannah Cahalan
Journalist Susannah Cahalan’s descent into insanity begins with the paranoid obsession that her New York City apartment is infested with bed bugs. Cahalan, then 24, very rapidly begins to have mood swings, hallucinations, and seizures, culminating in her helpless family’s decision to hospitalize her. After multiple misdiagnoses — including alcoholism — one doctor discovers that she has a rare autoimmune disorder called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. Once Cahalan recovers, she has no recollection of her month in the hospital, but she is determined to understand what went wrong. In a gripping memoir, she reconstructs her terrifying experience with a sharp scrutiny and frankness that few writers are willing to direct toward themselves.
— Shanoor Seervai, news reporting intern
“Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood
This speculative fiction is the first of a trilogy on the end of the world. But rather than a natural disaster, Atwood proposes that the twin evils of genetic engineering and the pharmaceutical/food industry will be to blame for the (almost) extermination of the human race. Also, it’s an eminently readable love story, perfect for the beach.
— Anna Vlasits, AAAS Mass Media Fellow