Historical Events

Judicial Divisions in Alaska show more cancer for more civilization in a 5 year U.S. Treasury Public Health Report for 1926 - 1930.

Mortality in the Native Races of the Territory of Alaska, with Special Reference to Tuberculosis

 Obviously, from the testimony presented so far, the frontier doctors of Alaska and northern Canada would have expected that statistics, if and when published, would confirm their view that the most civilized parts of northern territories would show the highest cancer incidence.

The chance to test this theory against the facts of statistically adequate population, and for a large and culturally differentiated area, did not come until the U.S. Treasury's Public Health Reports for March 2, 1934, carried “Mortality in the Native Races of the Territory of Alaska, with Special Reference to Tuberculosis," by F. S. Fellows, Passed Assistant Surgeon, United States Public Health Service, and Director, Alaska Medical Service.

The discussion by Dr. Fellows does have “special reference to tuberculosis.” But “malignancy" receives a column in the statistical tables, from which we can readily derive the information we need. The time covered is the five years 1926-30; the population, by the 1930 census, was around 60,000, about evenly divided between natives and whites, thus about 30,000 of each. As to causes of death, Dr. Fellows compares natives with whites and each of the four judicial divisions of Alaska with the other three. For my analysis of his cancer results I shall arrange the divisions in descending order of Europeanization. With an eye on the map (p. 91) and bearing history in mind, we may characterize the judicial divisions as follows:

Most intensively and longest civilized is the First Judicial Division, the Panhandle that stretches southeasterly along British Columbia. Its first European contacts were probably with Spain through Mexico in the 1500's. After Bering's voyage in 1741 the capital of Russian America was established at Sitka, where it remained even for some decades after the over-all name was changed to Alaska through purchase by the United States in 1867. Both before and after 1776 Yankee influence was considerable, as was British. After the purchase the influence of San Francisco was at first dominant, until Seattle and Vancouver took over.

Since the forest Indians of the Panhandle have been civilized the longest and most intensively of native Alaskans, the First Judicial Division ought to show the heaviest cancer incidence, according to the views of the frontier doctors whom we have quoted. That is the theory. Let us turn to statistics and seek the facts.

Table 2 of the Fellows paper is entitled “Actual and relative mortality from important causes among the native Indians and Eskimos and among the white population of Alaska during the five years 1926-30.” In the first third of this table, under “Average annual death rate per 100,000,” we find in the column marked “Malignancy” that in the First Judicial Division the white deaths from cancer are 92, the native 70. In the middle third of the table, under “Percent of all deaths due to indicated cause,” we learn that the white percentage from cancer was 7.8, the native 2.8. In the lowest third of the table, under “Number of deaths,” we learn that the whites who died of cancer were 59, the natives 21.


Map showing judicial divisions of Alaska

Historically the Third Judicial Division of Alaska ranks second among the divisions in Europeanization. It consists of the Aleutian island chain and of the southwestern corner of the mainland. Russian influence in the islands dates as far back as in the Panhandle, but the mainland part of the division was never intensively Europeanized. By the Tanchou-Le Conte principle, the native cancer rate should be fairly high but not as high as that of the Panhandle. According to Fellows' Table 2, the cancer figure per 100,000 is 75 for whites and 22 for natives; in percentages the whites rate 6.0 and the natives 1.4; in actual cancer deaths the whites have 33 and the natives 8.

The Second Judicial Division, from its history, should be in native cancer deaths the next to the lowest of the judicial districts, by the frontier theory. According to the tables of Dr. Fellows the per hundred thousand rate is white 126 to native 14; in percentages it is white 10.8 to native 0.8; in actual deaths the white are 9 to the native 6.

The Fourth Judicial Division should be lowest of the four in native cancer deaths. Here the population consists mainly of Athapaskan forest Indians who, except in becoming Christian, have resisted Europeanization much more successfully than either Eskimos or Aleuts, and far more successfully than the natives of the Panhandle.

According to Dr. Fellows the per hundred thousand rate is white 98, native 3; in percentage it is white 8.4, native 0.1; in actual number of cancer deaths the Fourth Judicial has white 27 and native 1.

The medical missionary theorists, those who favor the Tanchou-Le Conte principle, will think that the percentage table (the middle division of Dr. Fellows' Table 2) confirms their belief in most satisfactory fashion. In percentages of all deaths during the five years 1926-30, the cancer rate drops from the highest to the lowest of the districts on the scale as 7.8 to 2.8; 6.0 to 1.4; 10.8 to 0.8; and 8.4 to 0.1.

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