IN 1676, the great English surgeon Richard Wiseman suggested for the first time that cancer might be caused by a sudden, traumatic injury--a blow to the chest, say, or a fall that breaks a leg. The theory remained popular for two centuries. But by the mid-nineteenth century physicians began to recognize that it had no substance. Traumatic injury does not, in fact, cause cancer.
Then workers' compensation laws arrived on the legal scene, first in Germany and other European countries, and eventually in the United States. Court dockets were soon crowded with claims that a blow received on the job had caused cancer some time later.
Scientists and doctors began a vigorous new search for traumatically induced cancer. A typical report in 1928 described an automobile mechanic who was severely struck in the face. The wound healed in two weeks, but eight weeks later the mechanic developed skin cancer at the site of the original injury. The physician reported the case but noted that a cause- and-effect link was "very much doubted." In the ensuing years, medical