A Lively Irreverence in the Face of Death: J. B. S. Haldane’s ‘Cancer is a Funny Thing’

The notion of death, especially one’s own, can have a sobering effect on the most tenacious of souls. J. B. S. Haldane, however, was not one to submit to its grim hold.

John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, a British-born Indian scientist, is best known for his work in the study of physiology, genetics, evolutionary biology, and especially for introducing statistical analysis into these typically qualitative fields. Haldane moved to India full time in 1957 partly due to his outrage over the British invasion of Suez Canal and partly because he saw better research opportunities in the country.

His most notorious comment on leaving England was “Sixty years in socks is enough”. Once he moved to his adopted homeland, he made it a point to dress in Indian attire without the socks, of course.

Haldane was renowned for his eccentric experiments and outrageous sense of humour. He once ingested hydrochloric acid just to observe its effects on muscle action!

His least known work but perhaps his most endearing, is the poem he wrote for his family and friends while undergoing treatment for cancer. Even in the face of death, Haldane shows a lively irreverence towards the deadly disease.

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.


Ever the scientist, Haldane makes it a point to describe the surgical procedures and instruments which the doctors employed in his treatment.

I’ll swear, without the risk of perjury,

It was a snappy bit of surgery.

My rectum is a serious loss to me,

But I’ve a very neat colostomy,

And hope, as soon as I am able,

To make it keep a fixed time-table.


Haldane’s courageous humour is touching and inspiring, reminding us all to indulge in a “spot of laughter” amidst life’s hardest, most painful battles.

I know that cancer often kills,

But so do cars and sleeping pills;

And it can hurt one till one sweats,

So can bad teeth and unpaid debts.

A spot of laughter, I am sure,

Often accelerates one’s cure;

So let us patients do our bit

To help the surgeons make us fit.


Read the full Poem here.

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