That Sam Apple (A.B. 1998) would write a book about a complex branch of biochemistry might surprise people who knew him back in the ’90s as a Residential College student majoring in English with a sub-concentration in creative writing. Sure, Apple took some science classes at Michigan, but he says he was no specialist. At Columbia, where he got an MFA in creative nonfiction, he was “vaguely interested” in science—mostly popular science. But when he began his second nonfiction book, American Parent: My Strange and Surprising Adventures in Modern Babyland, it was the science behind parenting that piqued his curiosity. He pitched a science freelance piece to an editor and a new career path was born. Apple now teaches in the MA in Science Writing and MA in Writing programs at Johns Hopkins.
Apple’s curiosity also led him to his new book, Ravenous: Otto Warburg, the Nazis, and the Search for the Cancer-Diet Connection. The book itself came about somewhat by chance. He was investigating the links between nutrition and cancer when he came across “just one sentence about Warburg” and knew he had a story. The moment he learned about Warburg—a gay man of Jewish ancestry whose theories on the metabolic origins of cancer were so promising that Hitler and his cronies made sure Warburg survived the Third Reich—Apple was hooked. “The more I read about him, the more fascinated I was.”
Man of War
Born in 1883, Warburg catapulted to early scientific fame in his native Germany, the country that led the world in cancer research in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Warburg discovered that changes to metabolism lay behind the rapid growth of cancerous cells, which prompted the U.S–based Rockefeller Foundation to create an institute for him in Berlin in 1931. By the time Warburg won the Nobel Prize later that year, he’d already been nominated 49 times. (“It’s about time,” he groused.)
When Hitler seized power in 1933, a defiant Warburg stood up to the Nazis. At first, he didn’t think they’d last. By the time he realized how lethal the regime was, it was too late for him to leave Germany. At his institute in Berlin, he was shielded by Nazi leaders, and left the city only when Allied bombs made staying too dangerous. With his life partner, Jacob Heiss, Warburg spent the remainder of the war on Rügen, a German island in the Baltic.
Warburg’s story is as much about the science of cancer as it is about the brilliant and irascible man himself, whose arrogance rubbed plenty of people the wrong way. (Apple admits to finding his behavior sometimes “appalling.”) Yet Warburg blazed new paths in cancer research, and his fundamental discovery—that metabolic alterations lie at the heart of the disease—now drives emerging research exploring the links between cancer and diet.
The timing of the book’s publication—in the second year of a global pandemic, with many people questioning the scientific process—is a stark reminder of the ways science and politics often intertwine, and not always for the good. “Questions about how to best communicate scientific truth are always on my mind,” Apple says.
Above: Author Sam Apple. Top: Otto Warburg examines the Warburg manometer, which measures the rate of oxygen uptake by human tissue.
The project took five years—a remarkably short period of time given the challenges Apple faced. In addition to a part-time teaching job and full-time parenting responsibilities (he’s the father of three teenagers), Apple was conversant but not fluent in German and he’d never done in-depth archival research. The story itself touched on everything from the origins of cancer research to the rise of Kaiser Wilhelm II before World War I (a rise that was made possible due to Wilhelm II’s father’s cancer), to the terror of Adolf Hitler (who had an obsession with cancer), to the state of cancer science in 2021.
Warburg is the frame that holds the tale together, but figuring out the book’s architecture wasn’t easy. Apple describes his process as very much trial and error. “Even in life I’m very big on trial and error. People sometimes think I’m good with electronics. I’m actually horrible,” he laughs. “But I push every button many times until I get it right. It’s kind of the same with writing.”
While writing Ravenous, Apple shared drafts with a few select readers—notably his dad, Max (A.B. 1963, Ph.D. ’1970), and sister, Jessica (A.B. 1995). Both are authors—Max has published six books, fiction and nonfiction, and a handful of screenplays; Jessica is a journalist and fiction writer. Both are also LSA grads, as is Apple’s wife, Jennifer Fried (A.B. 1997), whom he met as a student in East Quad. Michigan “has had an enormous impact on my life in every way,” he says.
Above: Sam Apple (right) with his father Max Apple (A.B. 1963, Ph.D. ’1970) and his sister Jessica Apple (A.B. 1995).
At the University of Michigan, Apple first started to believe he had the stuff to pursue writing as a livelihood. He got his feet wet as a journalist while writing and editing a magazine for Hillel. His LSA writing teachers—Tish O’Dowd, Charles Baxter, and Eileen Pollack—encouraged him to explore a new type of self-expression. “In those classes, for the first time, I really wrote creatively.”
But it may be his dad, Max, a creative writing faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania and the celebrated author of Roommates: My Grandfather’s Story, among other works, who has had the biggest influence on Apple’s career. As a kid, his dad taught him about storytellers like the Russian master Nikolai Gogol. Apple jokes that his one “great rebellion” against his dad, whom he adores, was to pursue nonfiction.
While Apple never intended to pursue science writing, it’s there he’s found his home. “The truth is that I will never understand the science in the way the scientists do, and sometimes that’s frustrating,” Apple admits—which is why he rigorously fact-checks his writing with scientists. “On the other hand, as a journalist and a storyteller, it’s advantageous to not have the capability to go as far into the weeds as the scientists might be able to. It keeps me at the level of a storyteller. I try to strike the right balance.”