7. A Possible Early Cancer At Anderson River

The Anderson River of the Canadian Arctic is some 200 miles east of the Mackenzie River and some 300 miles east of Alaska. My dairy for 1916 records what may be an instance of cancer in an Eskimo from this district. I shall therefore sketch the relation of the Cape Bathurst-Anderson River district to European influence.

Roderick Macfarlane, mentioned in Chapter 1, established the Fort Anderson post of the Hudson's Bay Company in the Athapaska section of this river valley in the 1860's. Although Macfarlane descended the river to the Eskimo country, and made a journey some distance east along the coast, the cultural influence of the fur trade in this district was slight, the Eskimos ascending the river to the fort chiefly to buy hardware, cloth, ammunition, and perhaps some tea and tobacco.

Contacts materially affecting the Eskimo way of life, in the Anderson district, started after 1889 and became marked when a few of the fifteen or so whaling ships occasionally wintered just east of the Anderson River, at the Baillie Islands, off Cape Bathrust, and at Langton Bay, in the southeast corner of Franklin Bay. Then it happened here, as it did more extensively at the Mackenzie delta and Herschel Island, that some youngsters took jobs abroad ship as cabin boys. Several families of the region lived around the ships when they were wintering and a few woman married white and other sailors.

One Anderson River marriage was that of the woman Uttaktuak, who took for husband Peter Lopez, a native of the Cape Verde Islands off Africa who had first joined a Nantucket sperm-whaling ship bound for the South Seas and who later transferred to a New Bedford bone-whaling vessel bound for the Arctic, eventually to winter in the Anderson River section.

Uttaktuak looked to me about thirty when she and her husband were with us in a party of our third expedition that spent the winter of 1916-17 on otherwise uninhabited Melville Island, a westerly member of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. There were among our seventeen people a half dozen Eskimos, the most westerly from the Bering coast of Alaska and the most easterly Mrs. Peter Lopez, from the Anderson River. Uttaktuak, Mrs. Lopez, was exceptionally intelligent, and well informed and lucid on how things had been in her youth. During our Melville winter I filled many pages of notebooks with varied information from Mrs. Lopez.

In 1957 I had no recollection that I had ever recorded from Uttaktuak anything that might be cancer information. Mrs. Margaret Follett, my editorial associate on a job unrelated to cancer, knew of my interest in malignant disease and, going through our Melville Island papers, happened upon what she thought might be a pertinent reference in my diary entry of November 17, 1916. The context shows that Uttaktuak and I, in the expedition's winter quarters on Liddon Gulf, had been talking about sickness and health as influenced, during the time of her childhood, by Eskimo contact with Europeans. One of the diseases we talked about was syphilis. This affliction was undoubtedly in both our minds when I recorded:

Uttaktuak tells: Sisorinna was her grandmother on her mother's side. She died when Uttaktuak well remembers [therefore perhaps around 1900]. When Uttaktuak first remembers, Sisorinna had already lost all the flesh around one eye; the eye was still there, though blind. She had scars lower on her face, where the flesh was not all gone. Later her skull bones began to fall out. The first [to fall out] was a small piece from the center of the top of her head. Uttaktuak says that she lived at least a year after this, perhaps several. At the last, nearly the whole of the top of the skull was gone; and the brain could be seen, covered with ‘the membrane that always covers it.’ She [Sisorinna] used to do as much work as other women up to her death. She finally was in bed a few weeks, during which time her whole body swelled up. She died ‘because the blood got through the membrane covering it into the brain.’

This entry found, I at once copied it out and sent it to my old friend Dr. Eugene DuBois, professor emeritus of physiology at the Cornell Medical School. He advised me to place the information before Dr. Joseph C. Aub, Cancer Department, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, who replied on February 19, 1957:

“... it is not possible to make a definite diagnosis on Sisorinna, but certainly the description in your letter [diary entry] sounds like a basal cell cancer. It might also very well have been syphilis; and there is just a possibility, not a very good one, that it might have been lupus vulgaris. But I think either cancer or syphilis are the probable causes.”

So far as my expedition papers have as yet been re-examined (up to March 1960), this appears to be the only place where an Eskimo record, which I made in the field, indicated a possible cancer on the north coast of North America earlier than the hereinafter recorded Barrow identification of 1933.

Chapter 8 >>