1. The Problem Develops

In the spring of 1906 I resigned a teaching fellowship in anthropology at Harvard University to become field anthropologist of a polar expedition that would reach the North American Arctic from the west.

The Eskimos of the northern edge of our continent, and of the islands to the north of Canada, were to be my project. It seemed that I would get to understand them more easily if I studied these grassland dwellers against the background of their forest neighbors to the south, the Athapaskans. Therefore I would not board the ship of our Anglo-American Polar Expedition, the Duchess of Bedford, for an ethnologically profitless sail northward through the Pacific and Bering Strait, and then east along the north coast of Alaska. Instead I would go northwest from Boston by rail through Toronto and Winnipeg to Edmonton. Then, as guest of the Hudson's Bay Company, I would continue northwesterly down the Mackenzie River system through the lands of the Algonquins and the Athapaskans, to reach the Eskimos in the northern edge of the forest at the head of the Mackenzie delta. In an Eskimo boat I would then sail 160 miles farther northwest down a sluggish delta channel and finally another 50 or 60 miles west to where I was to meet our expedition ship, the Duchess, at the Herschel Island base of the Yankee whaling fleet, which had been cultivating the Alaskan and western Canadian Arctic since 1889.

On the way north from Edmonton, I was to learn what I could of the changes which had already been wrought by the fur trade and the missions upon the bodies and minds of the Athapaskans. Obviously I would have to depend for this information mostly on what the fur traders and the missionaries themselves would tell me, some of whom would be my traveling companions while others I would meet at the trading posts and mission stations. I would see the country and at least some of its natives.

All this, and whatever else I could pick up, was supposed to prepare me for more effective field work in later years among the Eskimos. The idea seemed so good, and so natural as a co-operative venture for the United States and Canada, that the universities of Harvard and Toronto decided to join in its support. Arrangements were made at Harvard by my chief, Professor Frederic Ward Putnam, and at Toronto by a like-minded Canadian, Professor James Mavor, the universities each paying half the expense and each getting half the resulting ethnological collections, for the Peabody Museum of Harvard and the Royal Ontario Museum of Toronto, respectively.

Before reaching the Arctic, I was to journey through Canada. So it was Toronto that arranged with the Hudson's Bay Company for me to travel with their fur brigades. Toronto it was, also, that arranged arranged with the Church of England for the co-operation of the Anglican missions along our route through the country of the Athapaskans. I gathered that Professor Mavor bespoke similar help from the Roman Catholic missions; but of this I never knew the details — I know merely that the Romans proved as helpful and friendly as the Anglicans.

That these were to prove to be, in part, arrangements for a 54-year anthropological and historical study of cancer in Alaska and northern Canada, did not occur to me. Nor did it occur, I feel sure, to either of the universities. Yet both Mavor and Putnam did consider it one of the purposes of ethnology to record the effect of the white man and his culture upon the bodily as well as the mental health of those native North Americans into whose lands and homes their universities were sending me.

The elder statesman of science for the Mackenzie River country in 1906 was Roderick Macfarlane, who knew more than any white man then living about the relations of the Mackenzie and Anderson River Eskimos with the Athapaskans to the South of them. The chief commissioner of the Hudson’s Bay Company in Winnipeg, Clarence Campbell Chipman, arranged several conferences with Macfarlane; and saw to it that John Anderson, chief trader for the Company in the Mackenzie section, took me under his wing. Anderson looked after me from Winnipeg to Edmonton and kept his eye on me through two months and two thousand miles of steamer, small boat, and portage travel, arranging for all the possible time and sympathy of the missionaries and fur traders along the way, men of Scottish, French, and Indian blood who knew the people and the country, and some of whom had indeed been born there.

My chief interpreter of the forest Indians, and of their country, proved to be the Right Reverend William Day Reeve (1844-1925), who had been missionary to the Athapaskans since 1869 and bishop since 1891, and who traveled with us off and on the whole way. I soon came to share with those who had known him longer their feeling of admiration and affection. But not till my second journey down the Mackenzie, in 1908, did I fully appreciate my good fortune that it was Bishop Reeve who introduced me to the health and welfare problems of the Athapaskans.

Fresh from college, Reeve was twenty-five when the Church of England stationed him at Fort Simpson, metropolis of the Hudson's Bay Company’s vast northern fur empire. The post had a well-chosen library; and its archives contained manuscript journals of the early explorers of the northern third of the continent, for many of them had been in the service of the fur trade and nearly all had some connection with the Great Company. There was also a museum of the natural history and ethnology of the Canadian North. From Simpson the fur trade was governed not only northward down along the Mackenzie to the Arctic Sea but also westward across the Rockies into British Columbia and the Yukon.

Reeve had spent one or more winters at places other than Simpson. While yet a missionary, he had been stationed a year at Fort Rae, on that northward arm of Great Slave Lake which stretches toward Great Bear Lake; and he had spent some years near the farmlands of the south, at Fort Chipewyan on the west end of Lake Athabaska. From this experience, and from talking with missionaries and traders who everywhere kept going and coming, as well as from his reading at the Simpson library, the bishop had acquired that sure grasp of the nature and history of the Canadian North upon which I have since leaned so heavily. Between my first and second journeys down the Mackenzie, he had been elevated to the bishopric of Toronto; but the Mackenzie held his first and permanent affection. When I last saw him, at Toronto in 1920, he was still keeping his finger upon the pulse of the North.

In 1906 the bishop was with us from May until July as we floated with the current northwestward from Edmonton and Athabaska Landing toward the Arctic Sea, sometimes drifting at three miles an hour in scows and then puffing along a bit faster on wood-burning steamers or walking across portages. This was ideal travel for conversing, especially for those who were eager to listen and learn. To us the bishop discoursed of the land we were passing through and of the Indians we saw. Upon occasion we questioned him, often about former and present health conditions; for the men and women we saw were in some cases pathetic with disease.

Before Europeans came, Bishop Reeve thought, his Athapaskans must have been among the healthiest peoples in the world. But many of them died young nevertheless. At childbirth the mortality was high, especially for babies but also for mothers. Accidents were many in childhood and youth, indeed throughout life. Though famines came seldom, the wiping out of small groups by starvation was frequent. Murders occurred, but not as often as among whites. Women who survived the childbirth period, and their male contemporaries, would more likely die from old age than from disease.

The problem of whether old age descended upon Indians sooner or later than upon whites, the bishop thought, could be discussed only with regard to probabilities, since undisputed facts were hard to come by. He had read in the books of some explorers, and in some Hudson's Bay Company reports from early traders, that old age was supposed to afflict the native prematurely. But himself he was unable to see how those writers could have found this out, even if their interpreters were of the best. For the very idea of counting years, to keep track of a person's age, was foreign to native thinking and had been brought into the Athapaska country by these same Europeans. The only fact that a Mackenzie River Indian could know about anybody's age, and the only thing he could have told anybody, was which of his neighbors were older than others.

By the time he discoursed with us in 1906, Bishop Reeve had been pondering matters of northern Canadian native health and longevity for thirty-seven years, starting in 1869. During the scores of hours in which the bishop shared his knowledge and thinking with us, I gradually came to understand how he classified the diseases and derangements which he believed were derived from Europe and which he chiefly blamed for changing the Athapaskans from healthy to sickly, and for reducing the population of the northern third of our continent from several millions to fewer than one hundred thousand. His grouping of these presumed imports seemed to be:

1. Cataclysmic germ afflictions that swept away the robust and the weak indiscriminately.

2. Insidious germ infections to which the strong were resistant.

3. Sicknesses which probably were not due to a germ freshly introduced by Europeans but which likely were caused by a deleterious way of life introduced from Europe.

Bishop Reeve characterized the three groups as follows:

Cataclysmic germ diseases, like measles, killed at their first onslaught from 50 to 90 per cent of even the strongest. Death came in one, two, or several days. Years later, the second measles epidemic would kill perhaps 10 or 20 per cent, the next after that proving fatal to only a few. Thus, through brutal weeding out by recurrent epidemics, the few surviving Indians, and their descendants, became nearly as immune to measles as if they had been whites.

Insidious germ diseases, like tuberculosis, would take a relatively small toll at first, seeming to grow worse progressively as the new generations came along. The bishop considered that this increasing mortality might perhaps be due to a weakening of general health under the influence of maladies such as he listed under his final heading:

Diseases of Europeanization. These included a dozen maladies such as cancer, rickets, scurvy, and tooth decay. Their recent appearance among the Athapaskans was charged by the bishop to the introduction of such foods as bread and sugar, and to such new food-handling methods as the preservation of meats with salt and the overcooking of fresh foods.

Since there are several chapters to come that deal with the experiences of frontier doctors in search of cancer, and other diseases of this group - since, indeed, cancer is the central topic of this book — I shall now dispose first, and shortly, of the bishop's “cataclysmic” and “insidious” classifications. However, what Bishop Reeve told of measles, the very deadliest of his cataclysmic group, is much like what I shall have to record from Alaska and northwestern arctic Canada later on; so I shall postpone measles, too and start with what may have been the second worst plague, smallpox. Instead of reconstructing what the bishop related, I shall use a classic which has the advantage that it can be checked in any big library. I quote Joseph Burr Tyrrell's edition of David Thompson's Narrative (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1916), beginning on page 321.

In a note Tyrrell says that the “undated diary entry” he cites must be from 1781, “for it was in the late summer and autumn of that year that the frightful disease swept across the plains and reached the Saskatchewan.” Thompson's party had been down east to York Factory on Hudson Bay and were on their way back west to their own station on the Saskatchewan:

“‘... we proceeded about 150 miles up the river of the Eagle Hills, where we saw the first camp ... when we came to them, to our surprise they had marks of the small pox ... none of us had the least idea of the desolation this dreadful disease had done, until we went up the bank to the camp and looked into the tents, in many of which they were all dead, and the stench was horrid. Those that remained had pitched their tents about 200 yards from them and were too weak to move away entirely, which they soon intended to do; they were in such a state of despair and despondence that they could hardly converse with us ... From what we could learn, three-fifths had died under this disease ... They informed us that so far as they knew all the Indians were in the same dreadful state ...’”

What Bishop Reeve told in relation to Athapaskan health and welfare, as affected by infectious diseases which he believed to be of European origin, has been summarized in the official Indians of Canada by Dr. Diamond Jenness (Ottawa, 1932), beginning on page 163:

“The most ambitious [Canadian] native never dreamed of creating a tyranny or of subverting the established political constitution for his own advantage. So Indian tribes never knew those internal revolts that distracted the city states of ancient Greece and rendered our Saxon forefathers an easy prey to Danish and Norman invaders.

“Nor did they suffer from those virulent diseases, smallpox and measles, that decimated their ranks in historical times ... Skeletons from prehistoric graves seem to indicate a very healthy population, although the weaklings who died in infancy are probably very imperfectly represented in these remains.”

On page 251 Dr. Jenness is speaking of how things were a few centuries later. “Many tribes acquiesced quietly in the invasion of their territories; others ... offered strong opposition. Whether they resisted or submitted, all alike paid the same high price for their contact with civilization, some even before they had actually encountered Europeans. The first plague that afflicted them was smallpox, which decimated them periodically from the early seventeenth century until the second half of the nineteenth. Nearly all the early writers describe its ravages ...

“A medical historian states that ‘the path of smallpox, from the time that it was introduced among the Montagnais in eastern Canada until it reached the most westerly tribes both in Canada and in the United States, may be followed only too easily. It left behind it a broad and well-blazed trail. Appearing in 1635 among the Montagnais, who dwelt near Tadoussac on the lower St. Lawrence, it spread with great rapidity north and south, east and west ... By the year 1700 smallpox had spread over half the continent, leaving a trail of death and devastation. ... The disease kept pace with, and at times outstripped, the progress of the white man ... it played no mean part in the reduction to a mere handful of the once numerous tribes.’”

After quoting this from J. J. Hagerty, Four Centuries of Medical History in Canada, Dr. Jenness continues:

“Smallpox was the deadliest but by no means the only plague that afflicted the aborigines. Typhus carried off one-third of the Micmac in Acadia in 1746, and the winter of 1902-3 destroyed the entire Eskimo population of Southampton Island in Hudson Bay. ... Pulmonary afflictions, especially tuberculosis, attacked the natives at an early date and ever since have caused a high mortality. ...

“These diseases, if known at all in America before its discovery by Europeans, were certainly very rare, and they exacted a heavier toll because the natives had never developed the slightest immunity.”

As said, Bishop Reeve considered that Europeans had transmitted to the Indians not merely some deadly germs but also a debilitating way of life; and he thought we were making some of the germs even deadlier, for instance, those of tuberculosis, through our ever more persistent introduction of less wholesome foods and more harmful cooking methods — and through what he considered our even deadlier houses.

The bishop told, with partly amused but largely serious admiration, about an ex-prize-fighter, Marsh, now his missionary at Hay River on Great Slave Lake. Marsh, he said, used muscular Christianity, if persuasion would not serve, to get Indians to abandon their white-man-style cabins for native wigwams, sometimes literally dragging families out and throwing their gear into the snow after them — thus trying to stop them from inoculating each other with tuberculosis as they sat huddled in front of a stove, “baking bannock in a hovel when they ought to be roasting moose meat against a camp fire out in the woods.”

Bishop Reeve seemed a little doubtful about the heroic Marsh technique when it was used against a germ disease like tuberculosis. But against another group of ills he felt sure the native life was a panacea, preventing those derangements which he believed to be caused by eating the wrong foods or by not eating the right ones. This baker’s dozen or so of diseases he thought nutritional. I consider his full list farther on, along with some additions contributed by Alaskan and Canadian medical missionaries. I shall now select three from this lot, because in 1906 everybody along the Mackenzie River system was talking about them, as part of what they had to say about the Klondike Gold Rush.

They had a good deal to say; for in 1906 the Yukon-Alaska gold stampede, the rush of ’98, was a vivid memory of a short eight years before. There were even remnants from the horde still around, picturesque, revolver-toting incompetents who had poured north through Edmonton, the swarm thinning gradually down river, many of them complaining loudly of toothache and some of them dying quietly of scurvy. The bishop summed up this part of the story as follows:

Before the ninety-eighters came, everybody along the Slave and Mackenzie rivers had at least heard of both toothache and scurvy, and some knew one or both from their own experience. As to scurvy, it was well known that Company people did have it at the ocean ports on Hudson Bay, where victuals were cooked European style and where most of the food came from Europe by ship. At these seaports the Indian wives of white men got scurvy nearly as often as the white wives of others. But at the inland trading posts, where flesh foods alone were to be had, and where they were not overcooked, neither whites nor their Indian affiliates ever had scurvy. The like was the case with tooth decay — nobody suffered tooth decay on the Mackenzie except those who had brought decay with them in their mouths from some such place as Hudson Bay or Scotland.

It was all a matter, the bishop thought, of what food you ate and of how it was stored and cooked. Scurvy cured itself when you left the Bay for the interior. Decayed teeth were not exactly cured by the all-flesh diets of the inland posts, but the tooth cavities ceased growing larger.

This was what everyone formerly believed on the Mackenzie about toothache and scurvy. Many of the Athapaskans had never seen an active case of either; but with the gold rush a lot of people came into the fur lands who not merely had rotten teeth already but who also brought with them quantities of the sort of food that would help continue the decay processes and, as the event showed, would also produce in the Mackenzie District the sort of scurvy they had heard of as suffered by the Company's people on Hudson Bay.

All this was conversational stock in trade on the river in 1906; and, to a slightly lesser extent, also during my second journey, in 1908. There were humorous tales of amateur dentistry against toothache, and far from humorous ones of scurvy through which teeth came loose and finally dropped out, as death approached.

Speaking of the Klondikers, everybody was saying what the bishop had been the first to tell me — that, so far as scurvy was concerned, those tenderfeet were best off who brought the least food with them. For the Athapaskans would not see them die of hunger; and they fed the tenderfeet on medium-cooked fresh fish and game, to the general benefit of their health and the complete avoidance of scurvy.

No one, that I can remember, was seriously worried about cancer; nor was I myself particularly interested. As intimated, I now remember about malignant disease from my first journey chiefly that Bishop Reeve thought it to belong to a group of ills which had behind them nutritional issues. But I do remember noticing more talk of cancer as we approached the Eskimo country, to the effect that the New England whalers, who wintered among the Eskimos east and west of the Mackenzie delta, could find no more cancer among them than missionaries and fur traders had been able to find among the Athapaskans — meaning none. The bishop said he had discussed this with other missionaries who knew more than he did about the Eskimos; I think he mentioned the bishops Bompas and Stringer, and that he had sent messages through Stringer to the whaling captains bolstering their seacoast results with his own from the interior.

What I especially remember is that when I saw the bishop at Toronto fourteen years later, in 1920, he told me he had long been in the habit of saying that he blamed diet for cancer because he knew of civilized Indians who had been victims but of none among the uncivilized. As I think back, it seems to me he spoke of this as if it were hearsay knowledge; and indeed it may well have been from books. For at least two of the classics of northern exploration, both of which are nearly sure to have been in the Hudson's Bay Company's famous Simpson Library, speak of cancer as found among Indians married to or working for Europeans.

During the early summer of 1833, the future Admiral Sir George Back, after whom Back's River in arctic Canada has since been named, was on his way from Britain to discover it. With his later equally famous surgeon-naturalist companion, Dr. Richard King, Back traversed the St. Lawrence River and followed the north shore of Lake Superior westward before crossing northwest to the Mackenzie system at Fort Chipewyan, both doctor and captain interested in what they could learn about disease. Most pertinent to our study of frontier beliefs related to cancer, is an extract which begins on page 187 of Back's Narrative of the Arctic Land Expedition (London, 1836):

“While at Chipewyan, Mr. King had performed a successful operation on a woman's upper lip, which was in a shocking state from cancer, brought on, as he thought, from the inveterate habit of smoking, so common among the half-breeds. He had met with two or three cases of it before; one, at Fort William, was incurable, and very loathsome. His presence was hailed with delight at every post beyond Jack River, either by the natives or those who resided with them; and it surprised me to learn how much disease has spread through this part of the country.”

Back's saying that it surprised him “to learn how much disease had spread through this part of the country” is, of course, confirmatory of the general belief of the time, that in their native state the Indians of northern Canada were healthy; and that most sicknesses which he found among them were of European introduction.

Following up Back, let us turn to his colleague Richard King's Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Arctic Ocean in 1833-35 ... (2 vols., London, 1836). We fail to learn anything pertinent about cancer on Lake Superior; but the expected Lake Athabaska reference turns up on page 108 of the first volume:

“... I proceeded (from Fort Chipewyan) to the woods with my gun and vasculum in search of specimens of botany and natural history; in which employment, and in administering relief to the sick people at the fort, my time was entirely engaged. Amongst those who daily came for medical advice was a half-breed woman with her upper lip in a highly cancerous state. It was a case wherein a surgical operation was absolutely necessary, to which the poor woman readily submitted. She bore it with much fortitude, fully justifying the character imputed to these people.”

As I said, material from such book sources as Captain Back's and Dr. King's, the bishop and I may or may not have discussed on the upper Mackenzie; on the lower Mackenzie the discussions, upon this and other topics, tended to shift toward the Eskimos whom we were approaching. After our convoy of fur traders and missionaries passed Forts Norman and Good Hope on the 1906 journey I began to hear it being said around me that Eskimos resembled Athapaskans in not having tooth decay, scurvy, or cancer.

It was probably at the Arctic Red River (where on July 20, 1906, I first saw an Eskimo) that I first heard of Captain Leavitt, who, I found later, was known on the lower Mackenzie, as well as on the shores of the western Canadian Arctic, as “the man who started the search for cancer.” Or perhaps I first heard of Leavitt the next day, July 21, at Fort McPherson, where I met John Firth, Hudson's Bay Company factor, destined to be my friend until his death two decades later. In later years we talked a great deal of Leavitt, whom Firth admired, and whose search for cancer in northeastern Siberia, the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, and northwestern Canada, led a half century later to the writing of this book.

Chapter 2 >>