Medical History

Red Cross Demonstration in D.C. During 1918 Influenza Pandemic (Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, 1918)

Then There Were No Coffins

In the fall of 1918, a deadly influenza epidemic raged in Washington, D.C. Entire families were wiped out; some people died within a day of showing symptoms. City officials, meanwhile, had a difficult job: figuring out what to do with the bodies.

The Howard University Fight Over Vaccination

Image of a gravestone of someone who allegedly died of vaccine poisoning at school (Source: Thomas Boudren, An Open Letter to the Governor and Members of the General Assembly of Connecticut, Bridgeport, Connecticut: Press of the Farmer Pub., Co., 1911)

Prior to 1909, Harry Bradford had almost never landed himself in the paper. He appeared in The Washington Post once, when it announced that the Kensington Orchestra was going to be performing in the near future. (Bradford played violin.) But other than that, nothing. And yet, in 1910, Bradford’s name was in all caps on the front page of the Post. “Bradford told to quit,” the headline read.

Vigo Jansen: The Resurrectionist King

Resurrectionists robbing a gravesite.

To conclude our series on Washington, D.C.’s professional grave robbers, we’ll focus on one of the most interesting individuals to ever stalk D.C.’s cemeteries, Vigo Jansen Ross. Like most professional grave robbers of the era, information comes mainly from local newspapers. Jansen in particular was quite well known as someone who loved the attention that the media could provide for him. Jansen claimed to have been born in Denmark in the late 1840s or early 1850s. It is unknown when he made his way across the Atlantic to America, but it seems that he studied medicine in his native Denmark and came across the sea to ply his trade in the growing American market. Jansen brought the love of drinking across with him, which destroyed any hope he had of pursuing a career in medicine, forcing him to provide bodies for medical colleges to make a living.

Professional grave robbers procuring a body

George Christian's Shipping Ring

December 13, 1873. The streets of Washington, soupy with mud from the previous day’s rains, began crystallizing with slick patches of ice as the first kiss from winter’s lips touched the city. Despite the oncoming cold, Officer Hawkins remained focused, his suspicions high. Nearby, a horse-drawn wagon and its female occupant continued to sit idle near the circle of 22nd Street. Upon earlier questioning, the young woman claimed she was only waiting for her husband to conduct business in a nearby home. Yet as the minutes ticked past midnight, the hairs on Hawkins’ neck began to stand on end—no honest business took place this late into the night.

In 1957, the FDA put up a warning poster in 46,000 post offices about Hoxsey's dubious cancer cure. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Cancer War: The FDA Vs. Harry Hoxsey

Since Congress established the National Cancer Institute in 1937, funding research to better understand — and hopefully find a cure — for the disease has been the major focus of the federal war on cancer. But on another front, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has fought a long battle against unproven remedies offered to the desperately ill by practitioners and promoters outside the medical mainstream.

In particular, the agency fought a pitched battle in the 1950s and early 1960s against a Texas-based self-styled healer named Harry Hoxsey — even taking the unusual step in 1957 of putting up posters in 46,000 post offices throughout the nation, warning people that Hoxsey's anti-cancer treatment was worthless and fraudulent. 

Sen. Matthew Mansfield Neely of West Virginia introduced the first legislation to fund cancer research. Credit: West Virginia State Archives

How the Federal Anti-Cancer Effort Began

Today, the National Cancer Institute invests nearly $5 billion each year in medical research aimed at learning more about various types of cancer and finding cures for them. While it's a war in which many battles still lie ahead, there have been some encouraging signs of progress, with death rates decreasing for the most common types of cancer.

But it took a long time for the federal anti-cancer effort to get rolling, and it started small. By the late 1920s, the U.S. government had made barely a token investment in fighting an affliction that at the time claimed 83.4 lives per 100,000 population, making it one of the nation's leading causes of death.

More resources needed to be invested in fighting cancer, and the man who started the battle to get that money was a colorful politician born in a West Virginia log cabin named Matthew Mansfield Neely.