I bought “On the Trail of the Jackalope” because, like author Michael P. Branch, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of a mythological horned rabbit for much of my life.


Although I purchased the book to learn about an imaginary animal, I discovered it also contains the remarkable untold story of Dr. Richard Shope, a Des Moines native whose pursuit of real-life jackalopes led to a cure for certain types of cancer. 


According to Branch, the jackalope story began in the 1930s when two Wyoming brothers, Doug and Ralph Herrick, ages 12 and 10, attached antlers to a dead jackrabbit while taking a mail-order taxidermy course.


They sold the result to a local businessman who hung the mounted jackalope in his hotel bar where over time it attracted sufficient attention to provide Ralph Herrick with work for much of his life. 


Herrick’s hometown, Douglas, Wyo., is today “the official home of the Jackalope.”


As the author continued to explore the subject, he learned that the concept of rabbits with horns goes back many centuries and crosses many cultures. 


So while the Herrick brothers may have been the first to attach antlers to a jackrabbit trophy mount, they were hardly the first to popularize the concept of horned rabbits.


“Horned rabbits have appeared in sources as varied as a thirteenth-century Persian cosmography,” oral traditions of indigenous Mexicans, folk tales of Africans, creation myths of native North Americans, the mythology of European cultures, “and a remarkable number of natural histories by prominent early scientists across Europe,” Branch wrote. 


In fact, he said, reports existed of rabbits with horn-like warts in Western and Midwestern states, including Iowa, years before the Herrick brothers attempted their first cross-species taxidermy. 


That’s where Des Moines native Shope enters the story. Born on Christmas Day, 1901, Shope grew up near the Des Moines River in an east-side home near today’s Lutheran Hospital. 


Shope’s father was a physician. At age 10 the boy “began working on local farms, where he took an early interest in livestock,” Branch wrote. At 15, the Des Moines Tribune reported, the lad “carried away honors at the Iowa Poultry show … for wild mallard ducks and Silver Lace Wyandotte chickens.”


After receiving a medical degree from the University of Iowa in 1924, Shope married Helen Ellis, a fellow student from Lineville, Iowa, and took a job doing medical research at Princeton University, where he was among the first to investigate swine flu, which he correctly identified as an offshoot of the virus that had resulted in the 1918 worldwide pandemic.


“Shope’s work on swine flu taught him a great deal about how viruses that ravage animals could shed light on … human disease,” Branch wrote. In 1931, he added, “Shope observed a tumor on the foot of a rabbit he shot while hunting near Princeton,” and “discovered that the tumors were caused by another previously unknown virus.”


The following year, a visitor from Cherokee, Iowa, told Shope about shooting “rabbits with horns out of the side of their heads like Texas steers, or out of the top of their noses like a rhinoceros.”


After examining diseased rabbits from Iowa and Kansas, Shope devised an experiment using pulverized horns to create a solution that he rubbed on “scarified skin of healthy rabbits, which caused them to grow horns.” 


He also discovered that “antibodies produced by the stricken rabbits could effectively prevent re-infection.” 


He had in effect discovered a vaccine that would evolve and eventually be used to successfully treat cervical cancer, which like the horns grown on rabbits is caused by a papillomavirus.


I said Shope’s story was untold because much of what Branch relates is based on material he found in old medical journals and previously unpublished letters obtained from Shope’s children. 


In that material, two recipients of the Nobel Prize for medicine, Peyton Rous in 1966 and Harald zur Hausen in 2008, credited Shope’s work with deformed rabbits for making their own success possible.