How a Legend Captured the World’s Imagination and Helped Us Cure Cancer

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Michael P. Branch’s On the trail of the Jackalope is a wonderful play in two stellar literary genres: American Tales and the History of Medicine.

The book begins with the history of medicine. Its prologue introduces readers to Dr. Richard E. Shope of the Rockefeller Institute. In the early 1930s, a virus created cancerous horn-shaped growths on the faces and bodies of rabbits in the American West and Midwest. Dr. Shope had received a solution of liquefied growths in the mail. Suspecting that a virus might be the cause of the rabbits’ problems, and knowing that viruses are much smaller than bacteria, he passed the liquid through a filter fine enough to catch the bacteria and let the viruses through. Then he scraped the strained liquid from the skin of uninfected rabbits. The rabbits developed tumors at these sites, successfully and simply demonstrating that the cancerous growths of the rabbits were tumors of viral origin.

Chapter one of On the trail of the Jackalope drops that tantalizing story and immediately jumps to the story of the jackalope, which also begins in the early 1930s. A jackalope is a fake animal, supposedly a mixture of hare and antelope. According to folklore, the jackalope hops (lopes?) all over the West and Midwest. If the species were real, one would have to imagine that over the past 35 years or so, at least 200,000 nearly identical jackalopes have pounded a trail to Diane and Frank English’s home in Rapid City, South Dakota. . There they sacrificed themselves to the two taxidermists to pot and sell to tourists 55 miles away at Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota. Really. According to the English, that’s about the number of mounted jackalopes they sold through Wall Drug.

I’ve been to Wall Drug. “Free Ice Water!” is the sign that drew me to when I was driving without air conditioning on a hot August day along Interstate 90. Wall is more than just a pharmacy. It’s also a whole mall of western kitsch, fast food, and things no one really needs. The large number of nearly identical jackalopes sold there would make anyone over the age of five believe that jackalopes were born from nature. (To me, goldfish and minnows seem more distinct from each other than Wall Drug’s jackalopes.)

Even if the jackalopes are a hoax, the history of the jackalopes is worth exploring and Mr. Branch had a hard time doing it. He visited the descendants of the Herrick brothers who, when young in 1932, designed, stuffed and rode the first jackalope. Driving in the West and the Midwest, Mr. Branch came across almost everyone even vaguely connected to the “trail” of the jackalope. Indeed, he turned his quest for the history of the jackalope into a gripping portrait of hotel workers, waitresses, crickets, tourist attractions, music, Amazing Grass Cams, rumors of extinction , Big Foot, Bat Boy, bar brawls, roadside museums and virtual games. museums. Mr. Branch is an excellent storyteller.

A little over halfway through the book, the author shifts his focus from the jackalope story that began in the early 1930s to the one he had dangled to readers in the book’s prologue. It’s the early 1930s story of the discovery of the virus that can turn real rabbits into horned grotesques.

Just as brilliantly as the first half of the book shines with charm and good threads, the second half impresses with its excellent reporting on the history of medicine and the development of a cancer vaccine.

In the early 1930s, Dr. Richard Shope identified the influenza A virus that caused the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic in pigs and humans. During these years he also became interested in tumors appearing on cottontail rabbits. As described in the prologue, he was able to demonstrate that the tumors were of viral origin. He was also able to show that once they were infected, the antibodies produced by the immune system of rabbits largely protected them from reinfection. Shope’s research on rabbits was the first to show conclusively that viruses can cause deadly cancers – and that an antibody-dependent vaccine could one day be developed.

Of course, now modern medicine has one. This is the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, approved in 2006 by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States.

According to various elements of scientific research cited in On the trail of the Jackalope, papillomaviruses like those that cause rabbit horns could be 400 million years old. HPV, a human sexually transmitted infection, is about fifty million years old and causes about 11% of all human cancers.

Quote On the Trail of the Jackalope, which cites data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

“For example, HPV is estimated to cause approximately 50% of penile cancers, 70% of vulvar cancers and 80% of anal cancers. Cervical cancer statistics are truly startling: 99.7% of cervical cancers contain DNA from so-called “high-risk” HPV types.

I have one complaint to make about this book. The caption is “How a legend captured the imagination of the world and helped us cure cancer”. In fact, the legend of the jackalope did not lead to Dr. Shope’s work on the rabbit papillomavirus, it was a coincidence. And, of course, while Shope’s work has led to a vaccine developed by others, a vaccine isn’t a cure, is it?

Well, that’s according to Dr. John Hess, Mr. Branch’s family physician. In the words of Dr. Jess:

“We are all indoctrinated – even those of us in the medical professions – that a heal is what fixes something that is broken. But the ultimate remedy is what prevents the disease in the first place. »

Point well taken. The HPV vaccine is vastly under-prescribed, and Mr. Branch considers some of its image issues. For example, what parent of a sweet, pre-pubescent child wants to introduce a virus into the child’s body in anticipation of that child one day having promiscuous sex?

America is to some extent still a Puritan culture. Some of us are willing to sacrifice our children’s lives if it helps us to imagine that one day they will grow up and love only one person, and they will do it flawlessly. All that would be fine, but the The CDC reports that:

“Every year in the United States:

  • Nearly 200,000 women are diagnosed with cervical precancer
  • 11,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer caused by HPV
  • More than 4,000 women die from cervical cancer.

As a potential way to emphasize a “Get your son or daughter vaccinated against HPV!” » message, I highly recommend On the Trail of the Jackalope: How a Legend Captured the World’s Imagination and Helped Us Cure Cancer. I also recommend it for other reasons. It is an excellent collection of well-told threads and a beautiful piece of medical history report.


On the Trail of the Jackalope: How a Legend Captured the World’s Imagination and Helped Us Cure Cancer

By Michael P. Branch

Pegasus books, 304 pages

Release date: March 1, 2022


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