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Breast Surgery in the Nineteenth Century

Posted 12/22/2015

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Count your blessings. You may not have liked your surgeon. You may be disappointed in the cosmetic result. You may have had some complications during healing. However, you did have your breast (or any other kind) of surgery in a hospital and you did have general anesthesia. That was not the experience of women having mastectomies in the early 19th century.

  Consider this: you find a breast lump. It is likely pretty big by the time you admit its' presence or, perhaps, before you even find it. You know what it means--minus any of the 21st century's fancy vocabulary, you know it is likely cancer, and you know that this is really bad. Your choices: do nothing, perhaps have a horrible open wound and bleeding tumor and die, or have your breast amputated, perhaps in your own bedroom, by surgeons wearing street clothes (although usually fancy ones) and no anesthesia. I honestly don't know what I would do.
  If you have the stomach and/or heart for it, here is a fascinating article from the ANZ Journal. I give you the abstract and a link:
Mastectomy with tears: breast cancer surgery in the early nineteenth century 

John P. Collins*
By the early nineteenth century, breast cancer was better understood
 and surgical treatment was emerging as a more favoured option although anaesthesia
had yet to be discovered. Many questions would have arisen for a woman advised to
have surgery, including possible alternatives, what the operation would entail, pain and
risks involved and the competence, ethical and professional behaviour of the surgeon.
This paper addresses these questions in the context of the contemporary environment,
focusing in particular on the personal experiences of the women involved.

A review of the surviving personal letters and information regarding three
 women who had breast surgery, and of the contemporary surgical writings on breast
cancer, training of surgeons, ethical and professional expectations and the concurrent
status of women in society.

Surgical training was in its infancy and the first pronouncements on medical ethics had just been published. Pain, bleeding and infection presented formidablechallenges and carried significant risks. Women were frequently devoid of information,a loss of their dignity and were progressively stripped of their authority.

 Breast cancer surgery was accompanied by enormous emotional and
 physical distress and significant risks from bleeding and infection. Although efforts
were being made to give women a greater voice and autonomy in society, their position
when receiving health care remained largely a submissive one. Lack of information,
feelings of vulnerability, helplessness and loss of control occurred. The public perception
of detachment most likely accounted for the occasional negative stigma then
associated with the surgical profession.


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