6. The Moravian Search In Northern Labrador

Samuel King Hutton, still active as a board member in the management from London of the Moravian Mission to Labrador, began his field service in easternmost subarctic Canada during the summer of 1902. He was graduated with a degree in medicine from the University of Manchester, and many of his published writings are in the field of Eskimo health and welfare; but he is most widely known for that standard general work, Among the Eskimos of Labrador (London and Philadelphia, 1912). This is subtitled “A Report of Five Years.” More pertinent to our cancer inquiry is his specifically medical book published thirteen years later, in 1925, Health Conditions and Disease Incidence among the Eskimos of Labrador, which might well have been subtitled “A Report of Eleven Years.” It covers the period from Dr. Hutton's arrival at the Labrador mission in 1902 until he left the medical service of his church in 1913 for private practice in Britain — or so he intended; his intention was interfered with by medical service with the British Army on the French front in World War I. Since that war he has been in British private and hospital practice, keeping in touch with the health problems of the Labrador mission through membership in the board that governs it.

As a background for examining the testimony and opinions of Dr. Hutton's Health Conditions, which deals with the period during which traces of Eskimo cancer were still being sought in vain by frontier doctors in Labrador, I shall sketch the history of the Moravian mission.

In a sense, the Moravians came to eastern Canada from Greenland, where they claim to have begun their mission work in 1733. It was already known that Eskimos speak one language all the way from Greenland across North America to northeastern Asia. It seemed logical to the United Brethren, when they had learned Greenlandic Eskimo, to extend their work southwest across Davis Strait to the Eskimos of Labrador. But it turned out that the Moravians encountered in Labrador difficulties other than linguistic. Although they began trying in 1752, they do not consider their Canadian foothold to have been secure until 1771. From that year, their relations with the Eskimos of what is now the Province of Newfoundland became steadily closer and more friendly.

Almost or quite from the beginning, it was in Labrador a cardinal purpose of the Brethren to keep the natives from dependence on the white man. In Labrador this meant, among other things, for the Eskimos to continue eating the food they knew how to secure from their waters and the land, to keep on dressing in skins, and to continue burning seal oil for both warmth and light. At first the motives of the Brethren in this were mainly economic and spiritual. But they soon concluded that, for the native, such independence was healthful physiologically as well as psychologically, a conviction that we shall find running through Dr. Hutton's medical articles and books, as indeed it runs through the whole literature of the Labrador Moravians, which is extensive both in German and in English.

So successful were the Brethren in keeping the natives to their native ways that after more than a hundred years, when young Dr. Hutton in 1902 reached their central station at Nain, he found himself coming to a well-established mission at which Eskimos were reading and writing in their own language, some of them also in German. These native North Americans were thinking and speaking European thoughts as well as those of their own people, but still they were un-Europeanized in their physical way of life. Their diet still consisted of flesh foods, most of which they ate raw and without salt; their dwellings were still the original

native-style earth-and-wood houses, lighted and warmed with Eskimo seal-oil lamps. Their clothes were still skins; and they were still healthy — healthy to a degree which is specified in Dr. Hutton's numerous writings, particularly in his Health Conditions.

If there are contradictions between Dr. Hutton's earlier and later publications these surely, in the main, result from his gradually coming to see and understand what he previously not noticed or had misinterpreted through lack of background. Taking his later writings to represent his most considered views, and striving for brevity, I shall confine this discussion to the Health Conditions, accepting the doctor's own characterization of his earlier Among the Eskimos as only a “Report of Five Years” — the first five. Besides, I have his assurance (obtained by long-distance telephone when he was in the United States on a lecture tour in 1957, and since confirmed by letter) that he has no feeling of having changed since 1925 the views on health and disease in Labrador which he developed during the fieldwork period 1902-13. True, I asked him particularly about his 1925 views on cancer, and it was on cancer that he replied specifically.

In the present chapter it is my main hope to convey Dr. Hutton's views on malignant disease and its relationships and to make clear his reasons for holding these views. But there is about his writings an underlying consciousness which I have nowhere found him expressing in marshaled words. He thinks that whatever degree of cancer immunity the native way of life may have conferred must be regarded as a by-product of general health — though, as will appear, he does single out factors that he thinks may have had special protective value.

As a member of the board of the Moravian Church in London, Dr. Hutton was of course one of the first to learn that in 1936 cancer had been diagnosed among the mission's own Labrador Eskimos.

I shall quote and summarize the view Dr. Hutton held in 1925 as to the relation of the former Labrador way of life to cancer, to certain other diseases of which he found no case, and to health in general. Most of the following quotations are from Dr. Hutton's Health Conditions and Disease Incidence among the Eskimos of Labrador.

Under the section heading, “Some Diseases Not Observed,” page 35, Dr. Hutton says:

“Some diseases common in Europe have not come under my notice during a prolonged and careful survey of the health of the Eskimos. Of these diseases the most striking is cancer. I have not seen or heard of a case of malignant new growth in an Eskimo. In this connection it may be noted that cookery holds a very secondary place in the preparation of food — most of the food is eaten raw, and the diet is a flesh one; also that the diet is rich in vitamins. The nomadic and open-air life may also play a part.

“I have not seen rickets among the Eskimos, though it occurs rather frequently among the children of European residents ... most European mothers resident on the Labrador coast find themselves unable to suckle their babies — the breasts are full of milk for a few days after birth, and then the supply ceases — the result, no doubt, of the preponderance of tinned and dried foods in the dietary of the European residents. The Eskimo mothers suckle their babies often for two years; the milk supply is plentiful, and the babies grow fat and strong, able to walk at eleven months ...

“I have never observed true asthma in an Eskimo ... Disease of the Fallopian tubes appears to be rare ...

“Appendicitis is another of the diseases which rarely appear among the Eskimos. I have seen one case in a young man, but in one living on ‘settler’ dietary; among the real meat eating Eskimos I have found no record suggestive of the occurrence of this disease ... The settler dietary consists of tea, bread, ship's biscuits, molasses, and salt fish or pork.”

Scattered through Dr. Hutton's writings are references to other diseases, omitted from this section, which were noted by him during the 1902-13 period but which were found only among white settlers or among Eskimos whose way of life had been influenced markedly by whites. Among these troubles scurvy and tooth decay are frequently mentioned.

Dr. Hutton says on page 9: “The Eskimo is meat eater; the vegetable part of his diet is a meager one ... Only the small black waterberry, empetrum nigrum, is eaten to any extent ... In spring the buds of the sedum roseum and the young shoots of the willow, salix argyrocarpa, are gathered and eaten. The Eskimos themselves cultivate no plants whatever, though in their inter course with missionaries they have shown a taste for garden produce, and eat what they can get. Turnips and cabbages are favorites, and are usually eaten raw; but only the few who work in the missionary households have any considerable share in this scanty garden produce. The dandelion, taraxacum, grows in plenty but is mt eaten by the natives. We may, therefore, say that the normal Eskimo dietary is poor in vegetable constituents.

“On the other hand, the native flesh foods are numerous, and of them all the flesh of the seal is most important and the most used ... Plain raw flesh is the Eskimo's favorite food; but seal's flesh is also eaten frozen (raw), dried in the open air without salt, boiled or even rotten ... The blubber, or outer fat of the seal, is usually eaten with the dried meat.

“Other flesh foods, less important because less plentiful than the seal's flesh, are walrus meat, caribou meat, bear, fox, and various birds. These are eaten raw or boiled.

“Fish is the staple food during the warmer part of the year. Trout and cod are to be had in plenty and are eaten either fresh (raw or boiled) or dried without salt. Salted fish is used by the English-speaking settlers in the southern part of the coast, and by the Eskimos who live in contact with them; but as a general rule it may be said that Eskimos do not use salt in their food ... mussels are gathered from the rocks in the spring, and sea-urchins are fished up from the sea bed in the autumn, and both of these are eaten raw.

“A certain amount of carbohydrate food enters the Eskimo dietary; the people obtain flour, ship's biscuits and molasses, and use these particularly when their native flesh foods are scarce. It should be noted that cod liver oil is used considerably; the natives dip their dried fish in it.

“To summarize ... the diet is mainly flesh and fish; vegetable foods are decidedly scanty.”

Longevity is touched upon in Health Conditions in several places. One such is page 17:

“Old age sets in at fifty and its signs are strongly marked by the time sixty is reached. In the years beyond sixty the Eskimo is aged and feeble. Comparatively few live beyond sixty and only a very few indeed reach seventy. Those who live to such age have spent a life of great activity, feeding on Eskimo foods and engaging in characteristically Eskimo pursuits ... Careful records have been kept by the missionaries for more than a hundred years ...”

(Further details of Labrador Eskimo length of life will be found in Chapter 14, “The Longevity of ‘Primitive’ Eskimos.”)

Page 18: “Perhaps the most striking of the peculiarities of the Eskimo constitution is the great tendency to hemorrhage ... young and old alike are subject to nose-bleeding, and these sometimes continue for as much as three days and reduce the patient to a condition of collapse.” Dr. Hutton says that menorrhagia and haemoptysis are also common.

Page 20: “Scurvy in its typical form is rare among the Eskimos. I have seen but one case of it in a pure-blooded Eskimo: and the fact that the other members of that woman's household show an unusually strong tendency to boils, abscesses and ulcers, leads me to attribute the scurvy to the adoption, in the case of that household, of a semi-European dietary.

“Seal's flesh, especially when eaten raw, has reputed anti-scorbutic properties. Certainly, when seal's flesh is plentiful the health of the Eskimos is good; and the tribe in the far north, who get very few berries or other forms of vegetable food, but who have seals all the year round, are free from true scurvy ...”

Page 21: “In passing, it is interesting to note the effect on the Eskimo of a European dietary adopted as a habit of life.

“On the southern part of the Labrador coast there are numbers of English-speaking settlers ... these poor folks live for the most part on tea, bread and salt fish or pork, and among them scurvy is common ... The Eskimos living among these settlers have to an extent adopted the ‘settler’ dietary instead of the normal flesh diet of the true Eskimos; and not only does scurvy occur among them in its typical form, but their physique is less robust than is that of their northern brethren ... They endure fatigue less easily, and their children are puny and feeble.”

In various places Dr. Hutton agrees with the common view that an important benefit from European contact is the decrease of childbirth mortality, both of mothers and of children. He considers tuberculosis to be probably of white introduction and to have been the worst killer during his time on the Labrador.

Page 66: “Europeanization, especially in matters of foods, is a detrimental influence of comparatively recent development, but an influence of great importance ... Hospital experience among the Eskimos has proved beyond doubt that the native foods are best suited to the native constitution ...”

We have gone so extensively into Dr. Hutton's views on the general health of the Labrador Eskimo, before and during his 1902-13 clinical experience, because of the impression derived from the total of his later writings — that he considered the extreme rarity or absence of native cancer, in which he believed, to be a by-product of an over-all good Eskimo health, which deteriorated with the advance of Europeanization.

As I have mentioned, Dr. Hutton was in the United States on a lecture tour during the summer of 1957, and I was able to talk with him, though only by long-distance telephone. I asked whether, when he returned to Britain, he would write out for me a chronological or otherwise circumstantial account of when and by whom cancer in Eskimos was first discovered in Labrador. He replied he could do so, from information which had reached London from the Labrador mission, and would be glad to. He said, however, that he felt sure the men who had informed him would be equally glad to fill me in directly. Not only had they been on the ground when the events took place but they had shared in them. He advised me to get in touch with Superintendent the Reverend F. W. Peacock, Happy Valley, Labrador.

It was the more natural for me to write Superintendent Peacock in that I had already been corresponding with him through several years in connection with a book he was writing on Eskimo sociology. He replied at once, and continued in several letters from which I shall quote. But first, to preserve a moderately chronological sequence, I shall return in my survey to the western North American Arctic, first to the Anderson River section of Canada and then to Alaska.

Chapter 7 >>