How A Legend Captured The World’s Imagination And Helped Us Cure Cancer

Michael P. Branch’s On the Trail of the Jackalope is a marvelous romp in two stellar literary genres: American tall tales and the history of medicine.

The book begins in the history of medicine. Its Prologue introduces readers to Dr. Richard E. Shope of the Rockefeller Institute. In the early 1930s, a virus was creating horn-like cancerous growths on the faces and bodies of rabbits in the American West and Midwest. Dr. Shope had received by mail a solution of liquified growths. Suspecting that a virus may have been the cause of the rabbits’ problems, and knowing that viruses are far smaller than bacteria, he passed the liquid through a filter fine enough to catch bacteria and let viruses pass. Then he scratched filtered liquid into the skin of uninfected rabbits. The rabbits grew tumors at those sites, successfully and simply demonstrating that the rabbits’ cancerous growths were virally caused tumors.

Chapter One of On the Trail of the Jackalope abandons that tantalizing story and jumps immediately to the tale of the jackalope, which also begins in the early 1930s. A jackalope is a faux animal, supposedly a mix of jackrabbit and antelope. As folklore has it, the jackalope hops (lopes?) All over the West and Midwest. If the species were real, one would have to imagine that, over the last 35 years or so, at least 200,000 nearly identical jackalopes beat a trail to Diane and Frank English’s home in Rapid City, South Dakota. There they sacrificed themselves to the two taxidermists for stuffing and selling to tourists 55 miles away at Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota. Truly. According to the Englishes, that’s about how many mounted jackalopes they’ve sold through Wall Drug.

I’ve been to Wall Drug. “Free Ice Water!” is the sign that pulled me in when I was driving without benefit of air conditioning on a scorching August day along Interstate 90. Wall is more than just a drug store. It’s also a whole mall of Western kitsch, fast food, and things no one really needs. The sheer number of nearly identical jackalopes 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 do.)

Even if jackalopes are a hoax, jackalope history is well worth exploring and Mr. Branch had a high time doing so. He visited the descendants of the Herrick brothers who, when they were youngsters in 1932, designed, stuffed, and mounted the first jackalope. Driving around the West and Midwest, Mr. Branch dropped in on nearly everyone even vaguely connected to the jackalope “trail.” Indeed, he turned his quest for the story of the jackalope into a vivid portrait of hotel clerks, waitresses, crickets, tourist attractions, music, Amazing Grass Cams, extinction rumors, Big Foot, Bat Boy, bar fights, roadside museums, and virtual museums. Mr. Branch is an excellent storyteller.

A little more than half the way into the book, the author shifts his attention from the jackalope story that began in the early 1930s back to the one he’d dangled at readers in the book’s Prologue. It is the early 1930s story of the discovery of the virus that can turn real rabbits into horned grotesqueries.

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 an anti-cancer vaccine.

In the early 1930s, Dr. Richard Shope identified the influenza A virus that caused the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic in pigs and humans. During those years he was also interested in the tumors appearing on cottontail rabbits. As described in the Prologue, he was able to demonstrate that the tumors were virally caused. He was also able to show that, once they’ve been infected, antibodies produced by rabbits’ immune systems keep them largely safe from re-infection. Shope’s research with rabbits was the first to demonstrate conclusively that viruses can cause fatal cancers – and that an antibody-reliant vaccine might one day be developed.

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

According to various bits of scholarly research cited in On the Trail of the Jackalope, papilloma viruses like those causing horns on rabbits may be 400 million years old. HPV, a sexually transmitted human infection, is about fifty million years old and causes about 11% of all human cancers.

Quoting On the Trail of the Jackalope, which cites Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data:

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

I do have one complaint about this book. The subtitle is “How a Legend Captured the World’s Imagination and Helped Us Cure Cancer.” Actually, the jackalope legend did not lead to Dr. Shope’s work on rabbit papilloma virus, it was coincidental to it. And, of course, while Shope’s work led to a vaccine developed by others, a vaccine is not a cure, right?

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

“All of us are indoctrinated – even those of us in the medical professions – to the idea that a cure is what fixes something that’s broken. But the ultimate cure is the thing that prevents disease in the first place. ”

Point well taken. The HPV vaccine is widely under-prescribed, and Mr. Branch considers a few of its image problems. For example, what parent of a sweet, pre-pubescent child wants to introduce a virus into the child’s body in anticipation of that child one day having promiscuous sex?

America is in some measure still a Puritan culture. Some of us are willing to sacrifice the lives of our children if it will help us imagine that they will one day grow up and love only one person, and they’ll do that immaculately. All of that would be well and good, but the CDC reports that:

“Every year in the United States:

  • Nearly 200,000 women are diagnosed with a cervical precancer
  • 11,000 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer caused by HPV
  • Over 4,000 women die from cervical cancer. ”

As a potential means of emphasizing a “Get your son or daughter that HPV vaccine!” message, I highly recommend On the Trail of the Jackalope: How a Legend Captured the World’s Imagination and Helped Us Cure Cancer. I recommend it for other reasons, as well. It’s an excellent collection of well-told yarns and a fine piece of medical history reporting.

On the Trail of the Jackalope: How a Legend Captured the World’s Imagination and Helped Us Cure Cancer

By Michael P. Branch

Pegasus Books, 304 pages

Publication date: Mach 1, 2022


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