THE DOCTOR WHO DECODES THE SKIN COLOUR MYTH
Sharad Paul is almost too good to be true – but unlike the cynical version of that adage, this one holds up to closer scrutiny.
He’s a skin cancer specialist who does 3,000 free skin cancer checks annually without any external funding. His clinic has, since 1996, operated on about 25,000 skin cancers in his adoptive home country of New Zealand. He’s a certified plastic surgeon, a GP, and has a degree in medical law to go with it. A few years ago he started to operate on some of the patients lined up for New Zealand’s state-run Waitemata Health in his own surgery, thereby single-handedly reducing the waiting time for skin cancer treatment from one year to one month. He runs a chain of bookstore cum cafes called Baci in Auckland and Brisbane – and soon, in Chennai – to help spread his passion for books.With the profits from his bookstore he runs literacy programmes for primary schools in Auckland. He’s won New Zealand’s top Health Innovation Award, been featured in Time magazine, called Renaissance Man by New Zealand Herald’s Canvas magazine.
He’s a published author of both fiction and non-fiction, with 3 books to his credit including Cool Cut, a book that grew out of a short story that won him the runner’s-up prize in a British writing magazine competition in 2001. He is a Senior Lecturer in Skin Cancer and Surgery at the Universities of Queensland and Auckland, and has developed a highly innovative range of skincare products for brown skin. Last year, he was awarded the NZ Medical Association’s highest honour, the Chair’s Award, and was a finalist for the New Zealander of the Year Award.
He is, in short, doctor, researcher, academic, author, entrepreneur, surgeon, philanthropist and hands-on father, and he does it all seemingly without breaking a sweat.
But it is as author of Skin: A Biography, Sharad’s comprehensive – and fascinating – treatise on the largest organ in the human body that he is set to explode on our collective consciousness, exploding myths, tracing the staggering evolution of our skin and challenging conventional wisdom in the process.
It also takes on some of the most controversial questions of our time: why do we all have different skin colour? Does skin colour indicate genetic superiority? The short – and inarguable – answer is no. “The story of skin is one of the most complex, sweeping tales of evolution,” said Sharad in an interview to The Hindu earlier this year. “Everything revolves around the sun. When people from Africa began to migrate to different parts of the world, their skin began to acclimatise according to the new regions. So Indians became brown and Europeans white. But wrong people went to the wrong places too, like in the southern hemisphere. Their skin colour is unsuitable for the direct sun, which is why white people are more prone to skin cancer and freckles, while the brown-skinned face problems of pigmentation,” he says.
Truly staggering for mankind, though, where skin colour has come to dictate social hierarchies, he is unambiguous when it comes to our evolutionary future: 2000 years from now, he says, white skin, in the process of acclimatising to the sun, will become a bit brown, while so will African skin.
It’s hard not to draw parallels between Sharad’s ambitious biography of skin – the sheer depth and breadth of the information it covered made any other term inaccurate, he says – and fellow doctor-writer Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies that was unofficially referred to as a biography of cancer.
That one went on to put Mukherjee on the map. It’s quite evident this book is about to do the same for Sharad Paul.