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Reviewed by:
  • Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease
  • Joseph M. Connors, M.D.
Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs. Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease. Stanford University Press, 2010. 456 pp., illus. $35.00.

What makes a biography fascinating? Let us list a few characteristics. The central character should face substantial challenges that resonate with the reader. It will help if at least some of the events and personalities are familiar. The author should express herself well, recording the facts accurately and stringing them together into a coherent story. The style of [End Page 501] writing should be brisk, easy to follow, and engaging. But most of all, the author should bring the central character to life, faithfully describing his virtues without neglecting his shortcomings and inviting us to finish the book with a deeper understanding of how the subject came to be the individual he was and how that teaches us more about who we are. Charlotte Jacobs’s biography of Henry Kaplan attempts, and largely accomplishes, all of those goals. Readers who knew this multifaceted physician will finish the book with a deeper appreciation of his accomplishments, foibles, and impact on patients and colleagues than they began and those who never met him will learn about both Dr. Kaplan himself and about Hodgkin lymphoma, the intriguing disease he worked so hard to overcome, as they gain a new perspective on the intricate interplay among strong personalities, scientific research, medical care, cancer treatment, and national and international politics that underlies the ongoing efforts to cure cancer, the most difficult of diseases.

In her book, Jacobs tries to provide two biographies. Moving back and forth between a description of how Henry Kaplan’s childhood was shaped by a demanding mother, the loss of his father to lung cancer at the age of sixteen, and the pervasive impact of the Depression during his teenage years through his maturation into a mature researcher and clinician and a selective retelling of the story of Hodgkin lymphoma, she details two biographies, one of a man driven by his early experiences and a superb intellect to excel at cancer research and the other of a disease whose treatment became the guiding paradigm for modern oncology. The parallel stories converge as Kaplan achieves excellence studying medicine and taking up twin careers as a radiation oncologist and tumor biologist, and Hodgkin lymphoma assumes center stage as the demonstration project that validates external beam radiation as a cancer cure and yields to the new treatment modality of multiagent cytotoxic chemotherapy. Even just listing the serial events and facts of the two biographies, one of the man and the other of the disease, could be assembled into a fascinating story; however, Dr. Jacobs’s moves well beyond that by bringing the people of both stories to life as they move in and out of Kaplan’s life and his efforts to cure a previously lethal illness. We learn of Sarah, Kaplan’s mother, herself shaped by her family’s escape from the Jewish pogroms in the Ukraine only to slip back into insecurity when her husband dies of lung cancer leaving her with three children to raise in Depression-era Chicago. We hear of Kaplan’s complex relationships with his overshadowed brother, with his children and wife who had to share him with mistress medicine and with his professional colleagues, rivals, and competitors who shared or at times opposed his ambitions and triumphs. Particularly poignant are Kaplan’s complicated relationships with his son Paul, with Dr. Saul [End Page 502] Rosenberg, his career-long clinical and research collaborator, and with the faculty and administrators who frustrated his plans for a cancer center at Stanford. It is at times painful to hear how his sometimes imperious personal and professional interactions, his impatience with indecision or vacillation, and his inability to be gracious with praise for family and colleagues eventually estranges family members and leads colleagues to be mistrustful and wary of what they perceived as his empire-building. The reader cannot help but speculate how much more this brilliant man could have accomplished had these personal flaws not interfered. But her ability to immerse the reader in...


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pp. 501-504
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