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‘Cancer's a Funny Thing’ by J.B.S. Haldane (1892–1964)

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Comments by John Birtwhistle

    I wish I had the voice of Homer

    To sing of rectal carcinoma,

    Which kills a lot more chaps, in fact,

    Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked.

These mock-heroic lines open a poem by the celebrated biologist John Haldane,1 written shortly before his death in 1964. Attending a conference in Florida about one of his specialities, the Origin of Life, Haldane noticed that he had rectal bleeding. In London on his way home to India (where he had chosen on political grounds to live as a naturalised citizen), he was operated upon for colorectal cancer. He wrote this poem while still in hospital and it was quickly published in a wide range of popular magazines and newspapers around the world.2 At the time, it was refreshing to speak so frankly about two inhibiting subjects: cancer, and one's bowels.

Haldane finished his poem the day after recording his own televised obituary for the BBC, although he probably hoped that drastic surgery had cured him. He was to die within the year. He had made fundamental contributions to genetics and the theory of evolution, his major legacy being a series of papers on the mathematical theory of natural and artificial selection. In a study of haemophilia and colour-blindness, he published the first evidence of genetic linkage in humans. He investigated ‘cloning’ (a term he coined). These are only a few of his scientific achievements.3

Haldane was also an energetic and effective populariser of science.4 And he was a socialist and materialist: hence this poem ‘Cancer's a Funny Thing’ from 1964 shows a polemical purpose, like a witty version of a Public Service Announcement. It even has a plug for the National Health Service. No wonder that the poet Philip …

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