Historical Events

The first case of cancer, a 25 pound liver, is found in an Eskimo native.

A Letter by Mrs Griest, a nurse in Alaska

Dr. Greist's reply to my letter was to the effect that the man I asked about had not died in hospital, that there had been no post mortem, and that the cause of death was unknown. Thus it was not until 1957, some twenty-two years later, that I discovered I had failed to get the information I needed, because I had asked a loaded question and the doctor had answered me literally. I had asked whether a certain specified man had died of cancer and the answer I got was that, in this specified case, the cause of death was unknown. Meantime it was known to Dr. Greist that another Eskimo had died of cancer. From the records of his hospital it is apparent that a cancer patient died there of the disease on July 27, 1933.

Because this was the first known malignancy death in northern Alaska, occurring forty-nine years after Leavitt began his search on the north coast, I shall set down all the details of which I feel sure.

When I took up again those inquiries which led to the writing of this book, an early step was to attempt to revive my correspondence with Dr. Greist, who had resigned his medical missionary position in 1936 and retired to his Indiana home at 318 North Bluff Street, Monticello. The reply came from Mrs. Greist, for her husband had died two years before.

In a letter dated February 19, 1957, Mrs. Greist explains that she remembers nothing of a disagreement between her husband and Mr. Brower on the cause of anybody's death, and suggests that if there was such a dispute it would be outside her sphere unless the man died in hospital or unless for some reason there was s post mortem, at which, in her capacity as head nurse, she would have assisted or at least have been told about it. Then Mrs. Greist continues:

“... I do remember nursing a case of cancer of the liver of an old man who came to Barrow from far to the eastward. After a week or two he died and Dr. Greist and I held a post mortem. We were then satisfied it was cancer ...”

This was all Mrs. Greist was able to say from memory, except that northern Alaska's first identified cancer illness and death came during some year early in the 1930's. But when she learned that her testimony was intended for publication, along with other testimonies, she instituted a search and finally discovered precise dates for this case. She wrote me on August 30, 1958:

“After three days and late nights reading through three years of my diary that I kept in the North, I found what you wish to know about the cancer case. On July 27, 1933, at 7:45 A.M. Jobe passed. I have recorded the fact that Lee, Helen and I helped Dr. Greist with the autopsy. [We found] an immense cancer of the liver; we guessed the weight at 25 or 30 pounds ... Helen is dead; Lee should remember [the cancer victim's] full [Eskimo] name... Lee is head of the native store at Barrow now.”

Mrs. Greist followed up this second letter by lending me a handwritten diary dating from January 1, 1933, to December 31 of that year. Into this she has freshly written, opposite the entry for July 5: “The day Jobe came in.” The entry says: “Jobe came in with obstruction of the bowels; very bad shape.”

The diary for July 17 says: “Old Jobe much worse; going to die ... Up on duty till 4:00 A.M., did not sleep till 4:30.”

In a further recent entry Mrs. Greist indicates on the margin for July 27 that here is the crucial passage of her informal, private diary. Insofar as applicable the passage reads:

“Helen came and called me at 3:00 A.M. as she thought Jobe was passing ... but he did not die until 7:45 A.M. Both girls were very sleepy so we let them sleep ... Worked all day; cleaned some in the operating room and clinic. Helped Dr. with the autopsy on Jobe (Helen, Lee and I). An immense cancer of the liver ... it must have weighed 25 to 30 pounds. Helen and I washed and dressed Jobe for burial."

Apart from assuring me that this was the first case known to herself, or to Dr. Greist, of death from cancer by an Eskimo native from the north coast of Alaska, Mrs. Greist had little pertinent information on the case of Jobe. He was an elderly man. Whether he had worked on shipboard (thus living a good deal European style) she cannot say.

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