How a legend captured the world’s imagination and helped us cure cancer

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Michael P. Branchs On the trail of the Jackalope is a wonderful romp in two eminent literary genres: American tall tales and the history of medicine.

The book begins in the history of medicine. His prologue introduces readers to Dr. Richard E. Shope of the Rockefeller Institute. In the early 1930s, a virus caused horny cancerous growths on the faces and bodies of rabbits in the American West and Midwest. dr Shope had received a solution of liquefied growth in the mail. He suspected that a virus might have been the cause of the rabbits’ problems and, knowing that viruses are much smaller than bacteria, passed the liquid through a filter fine enough to catch bacteria and allow virus to pass. He then scraped filtered liquid into the skin of uninfected rabbits. The rabbits grew tumors at these sites, successfully and simply demonstrating that the rabbits’ cancerous growths were virally-caused tumors.

chapter one of On the trail of the Jackalope abandons this enticing story and immediately jumps to the story of the Jackalope, which also begins in the early 1930’s. A Jackalope is a fake Animal said to be a hybrid of a hare and an antelope. According to folklore, the Jackalope (Lopes?) hops throughout the West and Midwest. If the species were genuine, one would have to imagine that over the past 35 years, at least 200,000 nearly identical jackalopes have made a trail to Diane and Frank English’s home in Rapid City, South Dakota. There they sacrificed themselves to the two taxidermists to stuff and sell to tourists at Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota, 55 miles away. For real. According to the English, they sold about that many mounted jackalopes through Wall Drug.

I was with Wall Drug. “Free ice water!” is the sign that drew me to it while driving on Interstate 90 without air conditioning on a scorching August day. Wall is more than just a drugstore. It’s also a whole shopping mall full of western kitsch, fast food and things nobody really needs. The sheer number of nearly identical jackalopes being sold there would make it impossible for anyone over the age of five to believe that jackalopes are naturally born. (To my eye, goldfish and minnows look more distinct from each other than wall drug jackalopes.)

Although Jackalopes is a hoax, the history of Jackalopes is worth exploring and Mr. Branch had a lot of fun doing it. He visited the descendants of the Herrick brothers, who designed, filled and climbed the first Jackalope in 1932 as youngsters. Mr. Branch drove through the West and Midwest, stopping by almost anyone even vaguely connected to the Jackalope “trail.” In fact, he turned his quest for the history of the Jackalope into a vivid portrait of Hotel Staff, Waitresses, Crickets, Tourist Attractions, Music, Amazing Grass Cams, Extinction Rumors, Big Foot, Bat Boy, Pub Brawls, Street Museums and Virtual Museums. Mr. Branch is an excellent storyteller.

A little over halfway through the book, the author turns his attention back from the Jackalope story, which began in the early 1930’s, to the one he had told readers in the book’s prologue. It’s the early 1930’s story of the discovery of the virus that can turn real rabbits into horned grotesques.

Just as brightly as the first half of the book shines with charm and good yarns, the second half impresses with excellent reporting on the history of medicine and the development of a vaccine against cancer.

In the early 1930s, Dr. Richard Shope the influenza A virus that caused the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic in swine and humans. In those years he also became interested in tumors in cottontail rabbits. As described in the prologue, he was able to prove that the tumors were caused by viruses. He was also able to show that rabbits are largely protected against re-infection after infection by antibodies from the immune system. Shope’s research in rabbits was the first to show conclusively that viruses can cause deadly cancer – and that an antibody-dependent vaccine could one day be developed.

Of course, modern medicine now has one. It is the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine approved for use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006.

According to various scientific studies cited in On the trail of the Jackalope, Papillomaviruses like those that cause horns in rabbits may be 400 million years old. HPV, a sexually transmitted human infection, is approximately fifty million years old and causes about 11% of all human cancers.

Quote In the footsteps of the Jackalope citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

“For example, it is estimated that HPV causes about 50 percent of penile cancers, 70 percent of vulvar cancers, and 80 percent of anal cancers. Cervical cancer statistics are truly staggering: 99.7 percent of cervical cancers contain DNA from the so-called “high-risk” types of HPV.”

I have a complaint about this book. The subtitle is “How a legend captured the world’s imagination and helped us cure cancer”. In fact, the Jackalope legend didn’t lead to Dr. Shope’s work on the rabbit papilloma virus, it was a fluke. And while Shope’s work led to a vaccine developed by others, of course a vaccine isn’t a cure, is it?

Well, it is the opinion of Dr. John Hess, Mr. Branch’s family doctor. In the words of Dr. Jess:

“We are all indoctrinated – even those of us in the medical profession – to the idea that a cure fix something that is broken. But the ultimate cure is what prevents disease in the first place.”

point well hit. The HPV vaccine is widely underprescribed and Mr. Branch looks at some of its image issues. For example, what parent of a cute, prepubescent child would want to introduce a virus into the child’s body with the expectation that one day that child would have promiscuous sex?

America is still, in some ways, a puritanical culture. Some of us are willing to sacrifice our children’s lives if it helps us to imagine that one day they will grow up loving just one person, and they will do so flawlessly. All of that would be well and good, but the CDC reports that:

“Each year in the United States:

  • Nearly 200,000 women are diagnosed with pre-cervical cancer
  • Cervical cancer caused by HPV is diagnosed in 11,000 women
  • Over 4,000 women die from cervical cancer.”

As a potential means of emphasizing a “Get your son or daughter the HPV vaccine!” message, I highly recommend it In the footsteps of the Jackalope: How a legend captured the world’s imagination and helped us cure cancer. I recommend it for other reasons too. It is an excellent collection of well-told threads and a fine piece of medical history reporting.


In the footsteps of the Jackalope: How a legend captured the world’s imagination and helped us cure cancer

By Michael P. Branch

Pegasus books, 304 pages

Release date: March 1, 2022

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