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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 poulticemadefromgratedcarrotandwater
to a tumour,not tocure it,but insteadtoneutralise the
awful smell a suppurating ulcer gave off.One of the key differences between then and nowis
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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