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Summary

The extraordinary story of the Nazi-era scientific genius who discovered how cancer cells eat - and what it means for how we should.

The Nobel laureate Otto Warburg - a cousin of the famous finance Warburgs - was widely regarded in his day as one of the most important biochemists of the 20th century, a man whose research was integral to humanity’s understanding of cancer. He was also among the most despised figures in Nazi Germany. As a Jewish homosexual living openly with his male partner, Warburg represented all that the Third Reich abhorred. Yet Hitler and his top advisors dreaded cancer, and protected Warburg in the hope that he could cure it.

In Ravenous, Sam Apple reclaims Otto Warburg as a forgotten, morally compromised genius who pursued cancer single-mindedly even as Europe disintegrated around him. While the vast majority of Jewish scientists fled Germany in the anxious years leading up to World War II, Warburg remained in Berlin, working under the watchful eye of the dictatorship. With the Nazis goose-stepping their way across Europe, systematically rounding up and murdering millions of Jews, Warburg awoke each morning in an elegant, antiques-filled home and rode horses with his partner, Jacob Heiss, before delving into his research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Society.

Hitler and other Nazi leaders, Apple shows, were deeply troubled by skyrocketing cancer rates across the Western world, viewing cancer as an existential threat akin to Judaism or homosexuality. Ironically, they viewed Warburg as Germany’s best chance of survival. Setting Warburg’s work against an absorbing history of cancer science, Apple follows him as he arrives at his central belief that cancer is a problem of metabolism. Though Warburg’s metabolic approach to cancer was considered groundbreaking, his work was soon eclipsed in the early postwar era, after the discovery of the structure of DNA set off a search for the genetic origins of cancer.

Remarkably, Warburg’s theory has undergone a resurgence in our own time, as scientists have begun to investigate the dangers of sugar and the link between obesity and cancer, finding that the way we eat can influence how cancer cells take up nutrients and grow. Rooting his revelations in extensive archival research as well as dozens of interviews with today’s leading cancer authorities, Apple demonstrates how Warburg’s midcentury work may well hold the secret to why cancer became so common in the modern world and how we can reverse the trend. A tale of scientific discovery, personal peril, and the race to end a disastrous disease, Ravenous would be the stuff of the most inventive fiction were it not, in fact, true.

©2021 Sam Apple (P)2021 Random House Audio

Critic reviews

"Eye-opening...filled with...outrageous and entertaining stories.... I walked away from Ravenous thinking of Otto Warburg as a sort of Sigmund Freud of cancer research." (Sam Kean, Wall Street Journal)

"Ravenous tells the story of an extraordinary life, and of the visionary work that sustained it.... [An] exceptionally interesting and well-written book." (Thomas Morris, Times Literary Supplement)

"The research that Warburg is best known for today, and the work that forms the backbone of Ravenous, is his discovery that cancer cells behave differently from healthy cells in two very specific ways: They consume massive amounts of glucose — Apple compares them to ravenous shipwrecked sailors — and they eschew aerobic respiration in favor of fermentation.... Apple covers everything from Hitler’s obsessive preoccupation with cancer to how the German Empire’s transformation into an industrial powerhouse led to a Romanticism-fueled movement that emphasized both environmental and racial purity. The fact that Apple can make these stories...feel so immediate is a testament to his canny knack for choosing apposite details." (New York Times Book Review)

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  • Joerg
  • 10-06-21

Highly recommended, a must read.

The book gives a unique insight into the life and work of scientist Otto Warbug, his genius, his struggles during the Nazi regime as a “Mischling”, being of Jewish and Protestant descent. 


This real life story includes many captivating dialogues that make readers feel like they are immersed in the actual events of the time. These include not just Otto Warburg, but co-workers and other individuals. Also Hitler and other adversaries of the era. The legacy of Otto Warburg and his cancer research was only fairly recently rediscovered, finally proving Warburg’s hypothesis, now dubbed The Warburg Effect. Warburg’s ideas are now the foundation to further explore cancer treatment.

My English is probably not good enough to give this book the credit it deserves. So I will conclude that I truly enjoyed the book, not only for the content, but the writing style as well.

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  • CMBB
  • 23-07-21

Phenomenal!!!

Excellent listen, excellent narration!!! Replaying AGAIN !! So captivating all around, the history, the story, and the Narrator Mark Bramhall! Thank You!

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  • Dr. Bill- Northern NJ-USA
  • 20-07-21

Way Too Medical--Minimal Nazi History

I have an extensive medical background--Sam Apple did enormous research for this detailed medical and physiological "thesis"--If you do not have a medical affinity, then this book would not be recommended. I was very disappointed, because I expected much more involvement about his gay, anti-Nazi involvement in The Third Reich.

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  • anonymous
  • 01-06-21

Yes, I would recommend this book.

Well read. Easy listening. Explored historical information I was not familiar with, but explains some things that I have wondered about. It was worth my time. I would recommend it.

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  • Bmt
  • 09-08-21

Outstanding!

Outstanding! Entertaining as it is informing. Absolutely superb story telling and extremely illuminating. Well done!