(p. A15) Hours before Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, SS leader Heinrich Himmler convened a perplexing meeting. He and his minions put aside preparations for the offensive to chitchat about a gay biochemist of Jewish descent in Berlin. Not to rage about the man, or plot his downfall—to the contrary, the Nazis believed this scientist could save the Reich, by ridding it of a threat they feared every bit as much as Jews, homosexuals and communists—the scourge of cancer.
That scientist, Otto Warburg, is the subject of “Ravenous: Otto Warburg, the Nazis, and the Search for the Cancer–Diet Connection,” an eye-opening work by journalist Sam Apple.
. . .
There’s no doubt Warburg was brilliant—the greatest biochemist of his day—and in the 1930s he focused on cancer, a major concern of the Nazis. Cancer deaths skyrocketed 287% in Germany between 1876 and 1910, “making a quiet mockery of the extraordinary march of German science,” Mr. Apple notes. From the Führer down, Nazi leaders trembled at the disease, and they enacted surprisingly modern measures to fight cancer. They railed against cigarettes, encouraged women to examine their breasts for lumps and worked to eliminate pesticides and artificial preservatives in food.
In his lab, Warburg made seemingly fundamental discoveries about how cancer worked.
. . .
The second half of “Ravenous” shifts into the (somewhat tenuous) links between Warburg’s research and our modern understanding of cancer. The biochemical complexities get a bit gnarly—there’s a dizzying amount of detail, making it hard to follow the main thread on occasion. Among other things, Warburg discovered that cancer cells gobble up far more glucose (a sugar) than their nonmalignant neighbors—“eating like shipwrecked sailors,” Mr. Apple writes. Oddly, cancer cells also metabolize sugars through fermentation, in a manner analogous to yeast cells. Biochemically, fermentation is normally a backup power generator for human cells, used only when oxygen runs low. Warburg found that cancer cells were running the backup generator all the time.
. . .
. . ., it’s not clear how much credit Warburg deserves. I walked away from “Ravenous” thinking of Otto Warburg as a sort of Sigmund Freud of cancer research. Freud got One Big Thing right—that the unconscious drives much of human behavior. But he was wrong on nearly every detail. Similarly, Warburg explicitly rejected good evidence for the insulin-cancer link during his lifetime, among other blunders, making it tricky to uphold him as a pioneer of modern cancer research.
Nevertheless, history will show that Otto Warburg always insisted that cancer was intimately tied to metabolism. As one latter-day biologist noted, marveling over Warburg’s rehabilitation, “We found out that son of a bitch was right.”
For the full review, see:
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 15, 2021, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Ravenous’ Review: Untangling a Disease.”)
The book under review is:
Apple, Sam. Ravenous: Otto Warburg, the Nazis, and the Search for the Cancer-Diet Connection. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2021.