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

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

ravenous 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 twentieth 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.


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


Editorial Reviews


"Apple . . . delivers a gripping account of biochemist Otto Warburg (1883–1970) and the origins of modern cancer science in his excellent latest. . . As he draws fascinating insights from the interplay between science and ideology. . . Apple keeps the scientific explanations easy to understand, while interviews with a slew of characters add color. This is a bona fide page-turner."
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"[Apple] 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).... An illuminating account that makes Warburg (the man and the scientist) accessible to general readers."
Karl Helicher, Library Journal

"A long-overdue biography of German biologist Otto Warburg (1883-1970), who won the Nobel Prize for his work on cell respiration and metabolism, especially as related to cancer.... A welcome addition to the library on the disease and one of its most successful enemies."
Kirkus Reviews

From the Back Cover

“A fascinating account of an impossibly arrogant scientific genius, his collision with the monster Adolph Hitler, and the revolutions in cancer research. Sam Apple, a lively stylist, handles these complex, braided narrative threads with clarity, insight, and a nose for the paradoxical and absurd. The result is a genuine contribution to science writing and a model for how to do contemporary nonfiction.”
― Phillip Lopate, Professor of Writing, Columbia University, editor of The Glorious American Essay

“Sam Apple is a spellbinding storyteller and explainer of science. Ravenous will change the way you think about cancer and how to prevent it.”
― Jason Fung, MD, author of The Cancer Code

“Otto Warburg’s decades-old science is central to a revolution in thinking about cancer as a metabolic disease. Sam Apple’s riveting book, Ravenous, reveals Warburg in all his brilliant, bizarre complexity and is a must-read for anyone interested in the science behind low-carbohydrate/high-fat and ketogenic eating.”
― Gary Taubes, science journalist, author of The Case Against Sugar

“Sam Apple’s Ravenous is biography at its best. Otto Warburg is an uncommonly good subject―a cell biologist who could not stand his fellow humans but devoted himself to saving them from the scourge of cancer. The author’s understanding of Warburg’s life and scientific legacy is perceptive and subtle, his biology lessons are a joy to read, and his history of the connections between Hitler and Germany’s early cancer research is a small masterpiece.”
― Patricia O’Toole, author of The Five of Hearts, When Trumpets Call, and The Moralist

“A remarkable book that just might make you rethink your diet. It’s well known―or should be―that poor nutrition can disrupt metabolism and lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. In Ravenous, Sam Apple reveals that many of the most deadly cancers are connected to this very same diet-driven disease process.”
― Mark Hyman, MD, author of The Pegan Diet and Head of Strategy and Innovation at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine

"A brilliant weave of history and science, Ravenous tells the riveting story of how Otto Warburg, a Nobel Prize–winning biochemist and a gay man of Jewish descent, survived the Third Reich in a posh Berlin suburb, and how his theories of metabolic cancer cells may yet hold the key to finding a cure for the defining disease of our time.”
― Helmut Walser Smith, professor of German studies at Vanderbilt University and author of The Butcher’s Tale and Germany: A Nation in Its Time

Ravenous reads like a cancer mystery with the larger-than-life Warburg in the role of the determined detective. By learning of the scientific struggles of the past, you'll gain a new appreciation for the modern focus on hormones, such as insulin, in the development of cancer.”
― Benjamin Bikman, Associate Professor, Brigham Young University, author of Why We Get Sick

“A fantastic read. If you’re interested in history or science― or just need inspiration to eat less sugar―this is the book for you.”
― Nina Teicholz, science journalist and best-selling author of The Big Fat Surprise

“While tobacco-induced cancer deaths continue to decline, the second major cause of cancer―obesity―moves to center stage. Few realize its profound importance in causing cancer. Sam Apple has written an endlessly interesting and carefully researched book.”
― Robert A. Weinberg, founding member of the Whitehead Institute and professor of biology at MIT

“A gripping and smart page-turner, Sam Apple’s Ravenous tells two fascinating interwoven stories: that of the pioneer of cancer metabolism research Otto Warburg, who in the twenty-first century finally has been proven right, and that of Hitler’s fear of cancer, both as the disease that had killed his mother and as a political metaphor.”
― Thomas Weber, professor of history and international affairs at the University of Aberdeen and author of Becoming Hitler

About the Author

Sam Apple is on the faculty of the  MA in Science Writing and MA in Writing programs at Johns Hopkins.  Prior to his arrival at Johns Hopkins, Apple taught creative writing and journalism at the University of Pennsylvania for ten years. He holds a BA in English and Creative Writing from the University of Michigan and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Columbia University.  Apple is the author of Schlepping Through the Alps and American Parent. His forthcoming book, Ravenous (Liveright, May 2021), is about the German biochemist Otto Warburg and new developments in cancer science. Apple has published shorts stories, personal essays, satires, and journalistic features on a wide range of topics. In recent years, he has primarily written about science and health. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Wired, The Los Angeles Times, The Financial Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, The MIT Technology Review, and McSweeney's, among many other publications. Schlepping Through the Alps was a finalist for the PEN America Award for a first work of nonfiction.