Historical Event

M. Tanchou is of opinion that cancer, like insanity, increases in a direct ratio to the civilization of the country and of the people.

Document Title:

Monograph on Cancer


John Le Conte (1818-91) received his degree in medicine in 1841 from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York and was preparing himself for graduate medical study in France when circumstances changed his plans and he took up instead a general practice in his native Georgia. There he read, in French and British medical journals, summaries of a memoir on cancer which had been submitted by Stanislas Tanchou in 1843 to the Academy of Sciences in Paris. No doubt Le Conte's interest and approval were strengthened through his discovery that the Parisian scientist had independently reached conclusions in regard to malignant disease that were similar to those Le Conte had himself published eight months ahead of Tanchou, in a “Monograph on Cancer” which he read before the Society of Alumni of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the State of New York on October 18, 1842.

Now from his Savannah address where he was a beginner in the practice of medicine, Le Conte sent to the Southern Medical and Surgical Journal of Augusta, Georgia, to be printed in its issue for May 1846, the paper that introduced the views of Tanchou to the United States: “Statistical Researches on Cancer.” Among the points of agreement between the unpublished Tanchou memoir of 1843 and a published Le Conte paper of 1842, were that (1) cancer, while found in children, is pre-eminently a disease of middle and old age; and that (2) its incidence is greater in cities than in rural districts.

The Tanchou pronouncement, which Le Conte seemingly expected would be startlingly novel to his readers, and in which Le Conte does not claim to have himself preceded Tanchou, is broached first on pages 273-74:

“M. Tanchou is of opinion that cancer, like insanity, increases in a direct ratio to the civilization of the country and of the people. And it is certainly a remarkable circumstance, doubtless in no small degree flattering to the vanity of the French savant, that the average mortality from cancer at Paris during 11 years is about 0.80 per 1,000 living annually while it is only 0.20 per 1,000 in London!!! Estimating the intensity of civilization by these data, it clearly follows that Paris is 4 times more civilized than London!!

“Seriously, however, the greater frequency of carcinoma in France, as compared with England, is a very curious fact.” Le Conte discusses whether differences in registration methods can account for this difference in figures and concludes that there could be some difference; but he decides that “it is totally inadequate to account for the remarkable disparity in the mortality from this cause (cancer) in the two countries.”

Here Le Conte introduces a table, apparently copied from Tanchou, comparing cancer deaths in England and Wales with the French, and concludes that “after making due allowance for the difference in the systems of registration, the mortality from cancer in the department of the Seine is nearly quadruple what it is in England and Wales. Hence it is clear that the general preponderance of the disease on the continent cannot be reasonably ascribed to any diversity in the classification of kindred diseases.”

On page 275 Le Conte asks, “How will we account for the supposed fact that carcinomatous affections are on the increase? To some extent, the augmentation may be only apparent ...” This he considers, and his verdict is that “if this is the true cause of the increase in frequency, it must indeed be co-extensive with the progressive advancement of civilization, unless some countering influences are brought to bear ...”


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