This is #4 in a series of 14 excerpts from the book, leading up to Nov. 22, the day
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Judyth had wanted to be a doctor virtually all her life, but especially after she watched a much loved grandmother suffer and die from breast cancer when Judyth was 11 years of age. Her first mentor became Mrs. Georgianna Watkins, head of a local chapter of the American Cancer Society in Bradenton, Florida, who inspired the young girl to find a cure for the dread disease. With Mrs. Watkins' support, Judyth won her first science fair at Walker Junior High School when she entered her first "cancer experiment," in which she studied cancer tumors in several generations of small black tropical fish (mollies) she had bought from her local Woolworth's store. Her friendship with Mrs. Watkins continued through junior high school and into high school.
In Me and Lee Judyth recounted her first meeting with the famous Dr. Alton Ochsner, former president of the American Cancer Society:
At the end of the school year, I turned fifteen. That summer Mrs. Watkins received an invitation to the dedication ceremonies for a new critical care clinic in Lakeland, Florida. This was a large and impressive new facility financed with millions of dollars of taxpayer money. Mrs. Watkins invited me to accompany her to the opening of this new state-of-the-art clinic. She instructed me to bring along my cancerous fish so we could get an expert opinion. We transferred the fish to one of her Heinz pickle jars for the journey, a three-hour drive from Bradenton. There we stood in a crowd of well-dressed professionals inside this massive new hospital lobby that glistened with promise. Mrs. Watkins greeted local dignitaries who circulated through the crowd and introduced me to some of them, telling of my cancer-research project and my prizes at the science fairs. Yes, it was flattery, but she was making the point that bright young students should be recruited into cancer research.
The Guest of Honor at this event was Dr. Alton Ochsner, Sr., recently president of the American Cancer Society and founder of the Ochsner Clinic, a well-known medical center in New Orleans. As he worked his way through the crowd, Mrs. Watkins asked one of her local contacts to introduce us to Dr. Ochsner. When he did, she asked Dr. Ochsner if he thought my fish had cancer. Ochsner looked at my fish in the pickle jar and agreed that they appeared to have some kind of cancer. Learning that I had harvested the tumors and examined them under a microscope, he encouraged me to continue, adding that I might want to move up from fish to mammals for my next experiments. Then with the warmth and sparkle of a professional politician, he excused himself with a sunny smile and returned to meeting and greeting others at the reception, all of whom were anxious to hear him deliver the keynote address about lung cancer.
Dr. Ochsner's speech that day was impassioned, and it was easy to see why he had been president of the American Cancer Society. Before 1930 lung cancer was so rare, Ochsner explained, that it was not even listed on the International Classification of Disease system in the United States. Ochsner even recalled as a medical student that he was awakened in the middle of the night to witness an autopsy of a man who died of lung cancer, because his professors considered it to be a medical event so rare that he might not see another again in his lifetime.
But now, said Ochsner, there was an epidemic of lung cancer and the victims were overwhelmingly cigarette smokers. Lung cancer was a virtual death sentence for people at this time, but the link to cigarette smoking had not been proven to the satisfaction of the critics, the press or the government.... Ochsner was the leader of a handful of determined doctors still trying to prove that smoking caused lung cancer, but their research was constantly attacked by the well-financed tobacco industry.... I resolved right there to graduate from fish to mice. I wanted to prove the connection between cigarettes and lung cancer through my own experiments. I told my dreams to Mrs. Watkins, and she said she would help me. It was August 3, 1958.
Dr. Alton Ochsner continued to speak at every opportunity about the danger of smoking, and he always emphasized his belief that cigarette smoking was the primary cause of lung cancer. He was a frequent guest in Florida, especially in Jacksonville, where he was a director of the Florida National Bank, where attorney Fred Kent managed the financial affairs of Ochsner's friend Ed Ball, mentioned in Ochsner's 1987 obituary in the Jacksonville, Florida newspaper clipping below, which unfortunately misspelled his name:
At such a young age, Judyth was already beginning to accumulate powerful acquaintances, who would bring her into a network which she hoped would finance her education and allow her to accomplish her dream of finding a cure for the dread disease of cancer which had killed her grandmother, and which would a few years later kill her beloved friend and chief supporter, Mrs. Watkins.
Despite the fact (as she would not learn until later) that the network of powerful men Judyth's work was leading her into had political connections to right-wing extremists throughout the world, she remained idealistic and almost naive, as only Americans who grew up in the 1950's can remember being.
It was an age of innocence, but it was quickly becoming an age of an all-encompassing fear--not only fear of the disease of cancer, but the more pervasive political fear of COMMUNISM and what its spread would do to America's future..
Tomorrow, Excerpt #5:
"What they were doing was wrong. It was evil. They had lost their moral compass." Judyth's decision not to test their bioweapon on a healthy human guinea pig would result in her becoming Dr. Ochsner's enemy and getting fired from Dr. Mary Sherman's cancer project.