Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fanny Burney was heroic, too

Thursday, October 21, 2010
Loretta reports:

Breast Cancer Awareness Month seems a fine time to bring Fanny Burney to center stage.

Anyone who’s had a mammogram knows it isn’t fun.  We women make jokes of it, mainly in the gallows humor vein. 
You can read some here.  But it’s more fun than a mastectomy, and way more fun than the mastectomies our foremothers underwent.
Fanny Burney had a mastectomy in 1811, without anesthesia or antibiotics, because there weren't any.

Here’s a summary, based on Claire Harman’s Fanny Burney: A Biography:
Ms. Burney developed a large—about the size of a fist—painful lump in her breast.  She was in her fifties and she was in Paris at the time (she'd married a Frenchman).  She consulted Napoleon’s celebrated army-surgeon Dominique-Jean Larrey.”  Among other things, Ms. Harman tells us, “In the medical culture of the day, exposure of a female patient’s body to examination was not insisted on, and it is highly likely, given Fanny’s temperament and her stated ‘dread & repugnance’ of medical intervention ‘from a thousand reasons besides the pain,’ that Larrey had not actually seen the breast until he was just about to cut it off.”  We learn that none of the doctors involved examined the tumor until the day of operation, “and even then, they didn’t touch it.” 

Today it’s believed that the tumor was benign.  Her chances of survival with a malignant one of that size were about nil.  The operation alone killed some women.  She not only survived to tell the tale but lived another 29 years.

You can read her account of the ordeal here.  Warning:  This is not for the squeamish.  Some readers may find it more harrowing than Colonel Ponsonby’s experience on the battlefield.

Perhaps less harrowing (well, except for the illustration of the instruments) and definitely more inspiring is the post at The Duchess of Devonshire blog, Huzzah for Bosoms.
I know I’ve been heavy on the blood and guts this week, but that’s done…for a while…I promise.  Next week we’ve got some  more treats in store from Colonial Williamsburg.


Undine said...

I had come across that account of Fanny Burney's operation before, and always kinda wished I hadn't. Although what she endured is arguably less horrific than what Anne of Austria went through when she died of the same disease. Personally, I think the medical treatments killed her faster than the cancer did.

Monica Burns said...

There's no way I could go read that. When I watched the John Adams series that HBO made and they showed slicing into his daughter's breast to cut it off, I was appalled that it was done without anything. I've experienced pain of broken bones and have had sutures, gall bladder pain and childbirth. BUT THIS! I can't even begin to imagine the pain. Oy.

Oh, and cool word verification - nation LOL

Vanessa Kelly said...

Fanny Burney's courage and endurance were truly heroic, not only in surviving such an ordeal but in subsequently writing about. Her record of the event is considered to be one of the first accounts of a medical procedure from a patient's point of view, and was apparently taught in some medical schools. She was an amazing person in so many ways.

Deb said...

The removal of an egg-sized stone from Samuel Pepys's kidney is another story not for the squeamish. I think the procedure was done before he started his diary--anyway, he lived many more years after and kept the stone on his desk, but the primitive removal method may have been responsible for his never fathering children.

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