Historical Events

Back's saying that it surprised him “to learn how much disease had spread through this part of the country”

Narrative of the Arctic Land Expedition

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.

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