Historical Events

Copy Link

“Eskimos never have cancer”

July 1, 1906


Medical Notes on Northern Alaska

Carnivore Diet

In their absence, the Flaxman Island base of the Anglo-American Polar Expedition was commanded by Dr. George Plummer Howe, the expedition's surgeon. It turned out that he and I had been contemporaries at Harvard, though we had never met — not strange, for the medical school is in Boston, and I had been in the divinity school and then in the graduate school, both of which are in Cambridge. He was A.B. 1900 and M.D. 1904.

Though a medical man by training, Dr. Howe proved to be an anthropologist at heart. What he told me included his having heard in the summer of 1906, almost as soon as the Duchess reached Alaska waters, that “Eskimos never have cancer,” and that Captain Leavitt was credited with originating the local search on which this view rested. One of the first to tell Howe this had been the surgeon on the United States revenue cutter Thetis, whose name I neglected to record; but more extensive detail had been given Howe by the head of the Presbyterian medical mission at Point Barrow, Dr. Horatio Richmond Marsh, a native of Illinois.

In talking with Dr. Howe, both the surgeon of the Thetis and the medical missionary at Barrow had agreed on several points, among these that in northern Alaska Leavitt had originated the local quest; that he had been indefatigable in urging government doctors, medical missionaries, expedition surgeons, everybody, to look for malignant disease; that many of these searchers, including Howe's informants, had expected to find cancer; but that all of those who remained in the Alaskan Arctic had been convinced eventually, that cancer was not to be found among Eskimos who still lived native style.

“It has been said that cancer does not exist among the Eskimos. So far as I could find out, this is true ...”