Breast Cancer in 19th Century France
Oh my. I hardly know how to speak of or present you with this article. It makes me down on my knees grateful to have been born when I was. It makes me more grateful that we have access to modern medical care. I write often in these pages about the slow progress of breast cancer research, and that is still true. But what is also true is that medical care in general is phenomenally better than it used to be, and we have to presume all kinds of things that would have been impossible in the past.
If you watched the HBO series about John Adams a few years ago, you probably remember the scene in which his daughter, Gabby, had a mastectomy. Dressed per usual for the era (meaning quite formally), she was escorted to a normal chair and surrounded by men in black suits who, without anesthesia, performed the surgery. She died a year or two later.
This article, and thanks to Barbara for sending it, is from the journal of the Society for the Social History of Medicine. Their journal is likely full of equally distressing articles about all manner of things, but this one is for us.
I will give you an excerpt and then a choice of how to read more: There is a link to their journal below, but you have to buy access to the article. If you want to e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org), I will send it to you. This is a very sobering read, and I am filled with admiration for the courage and composure of Zelie Martin, who died of breast cancer in 1877.
'Purgatory on Earth': An Account of Breast Cancer from Nineteenth-Century France
By THERESE TAYLOR
SUMMARY. The subject of this article is the terminal illness of Zelie Martin who died from breast cancer in 1877. She was a Catholic woman of Normandy, a professional lace-maker, and the mother of five daughters. Her extensive correspondence, which records her fatal illness, is the main source for this study. Her accounts of the disease are compared with medical texts of the period. Religious responses to illness, and the support offered by family members are also described.
A rewarding and extensive collection of primary sources is available in the case of Zelie Martin, a middle-class woman of Normandy, who died of breast cancer in 1877, at the age of 46. Zelie Martin has a minor but lasting role in the history of the Catholic Church. Her youngest daughter was to attain posthumous fame as Saint Therese of Lisieux. Because of Zelie's habit of persistent correspondence, and the veneration of her daughter which caused family memoirs to be preserved, a valuable primary source has been preserved for the history of breast cancer, and terminal illness in general. While suffering from breast cancer, Zelie Martin encountered the competing explanations of religion and medicine when faced with disease, the unending obligations of maternal responsibility, and the individ- ual and social experiences of approaching death. Her letters both describe and conceal the state of her body as it was ravaged by malignant tumours, and the correspondence as a whole illuminates the issue of how a woman narrated the experience of breast cancer.
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