Dr. Kaplan's Revolutionary Death Ray for Kids


The image of a child undergoing modern anticancer treatments is especially jarring—little bald-headed androgynous rascals, so cherubic you can't help but marvel at the cruelty of a world that permits gangly tumors to spread through such innocence, and the heart bleeds at the thought of poisonous chemotherapy wreaking its havoc on their growing bodies.

St. Jude's Children's Hospital has become especially skilled at showcasing such patients in ads to attract donation dollars, but when it comes to matching innocence with the terrifying barbarism of modern anticancer imagery, nobody can hold a candle to little Gordon Isaacs and the 6-million volt Death Ray looming behind him:


Stark images like this can speak a thousand words, but how many of them are true? While the picture speaks of hopeless overkill, of Cold War weaponry, of Lovercraft-like horrors, the reality—at least as goes this pic—is none of these things.

Rather, the photo (taken at Stanford University Hospital in 1957 and now in the public domain) illustrates the first American patient treated with the now-standard linear accelerator (radiotherapy) for retinoblastoma. That patient happened to be little Gordy, and he'd already lost his right eye to the cancer, and a localized tumor was threatening the vision in his left. Instead of putting Gordo under the knife for yet another surgery, his doctor, the great Henry Kaplan, decided to try the accelerator.

The result was a success. Gordon retained the vision in his left eye and as of 1984, the last word I can reliably find for him, he was a healthy adult male with good vision in one eye living somewhere in the vicinity of the San Francisco Bay Area. Kaplan's name still carries massive weight in Hodgkin's circles, and rightfully so—before Henry Kaplan, people diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma were considered lost causes. Today they're often told (appropriately or not) that they're lucky because it's a curable cancer, thanks in great part to Kaplan's pioneering and innovative work.

By Ross Bonander

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