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Breast Cancer in the 18th Century

Posted 1/23/2014

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  If ever you are feeling nostalgic about the past, it is helpful to be reminded of where we are in medicine vs. where we were hundreds of years ago. Some of you probably watched the HBO series about John Adams several years ago; I cannot shake the image of his daughter preparing for a mastectomy. Fully clothed, she walked into the living room where the surgeons (wearing formal suits) awaited her. I think they gave her a swig of something strong, and then proceeded to amputate her breast. She survived the surgery, but died of breast cancer not too much longer.

  Now there is a book, Marjo Kaartinen's  Breast Cancer in the Eighteenth Century, for anyone who wants to read more. From a review in The Social History of Medicine: 

 In his ground-breaking translation of The London Dispensatory (1653), Nicholas Culpeper mentioned in passing that his own mother had suffered from breast cancer. He recalled how the famous surgeon and author Dr Alexander Read had treated the disease with an ‘Oyntment of red Lead’ known for its cooling and drying properties. However, this was entirely ineffective in this case since Culpeper noted that despite the fact that the treatment was applied before the cancer broke, it had done as much good ‘as though he had applied a rotten Apple’ (p. 156) to it. From similar treatments described in this new study of breast cancer in the following century, it would seem that perhaps Read’s care for Culpeper’s mother was designed to be palliative rather than aggressively curative. For example, Marjo Kaartinen explains that in the mid-eighteenth century it became fashionable to apply a poultice made from grated carrot and water to a tumour, not to cure it, but instead to neutralise the awful smell a suppurating ulcer gave off. One of the key differences between then and now is the sheer visibility of cancerous tumours which were often not diagnosable until they had broken the skin. Since ancient times this has been the reason behind the description of tumours as crab-like, as its blood supply appeared like the pincers of the crab.

And here is a link to the publisher:


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