Early Modern Breast Surgeries and Recipes

I’ve been a teaching assistant twice for a two-semester survey of the history of western medicine offered at the Johns Hopkins University. The full sequence takes undergraduates from Hippocrates to Obamacare, with the second semester covering the Enlightenment to the present. One of the pleasures of teaching a discussion section during the second semester is that it allows me to explore the history of our own institution with a group of undergraduates, many of whom themselves hope to work in healthcare and perhaps to study medicine at Johns Hopkins.

William Halsted. Source: National Library of Medicine, IHM. 101417923.

A key, fascinating figure in the early history of Hopkins–and one who bridges central course themes as we shift from the early modern, to the modern, to the contemporary–is William Halsted. He was one of the “Big Four,” a brilliant surgeon, an accidental cocaine addict. Halsted is well known for his role in the history of mastectomy, and in this as in other areas of his career he can illuminate these themes for students. His life and career, for example, epitomize the promises and perils of developments in nineteenth-century surgery. I also believe that the history of radical mastectomy has particular power for many because the tensions that the measure introduced into the lives of sufferers continue to be recognizable in our own. We all have friends and family who have suffered from and with cancer and cancer therapies, and many have faced decisions over difficult breast surgeries. These tensions also persist at the level of public policy. For instance, just in the last few days, as I was preparing this post, I listened to a contentious panel discussion on the American public radio program “The Diane Rehm Show” about routine mammography.

I don’t want to suggest that our and our loved ones’ medical experiences are in any way the same as Halsted’s patients’, much less those of early modern people who contemplated going under the knife, but I do want to suggest here that making such connections may help us and our students think about and empathize with historical actors who often seem very foreign from us. Recipe books might seem like poor sources for doing this, but if we look closely I think that there is in fact evidence of a great deal of emotion and drama. It is visible, for instance, in recipes that heal breasts, especially breasts threatened by dire maladies and consequently surgeons’ tools.

Halftone of Bodleian Library window. Source: National Library of Medicine, IHM. 101409068.

As scholarship such as Lucinda Beier’s on the London surgeon Joseph Binns has shown us, workaday early modern surgeons did not perform much invasive surgical work.1 Opening the body and reaching into it with tools and chemicals was usually a last resort, but it was one some surgeons and sufferers were willing to undertake. Operations like craniotomy, lithotomy, and, of course, limb amputation are the best known pre-modern measures. Surgeons also sometimes cut into afflicted breasts, removing portions of breasts or even amputating them entirely.

A vivid instance of an early modern breast surgery can be found in the writings of Richard Wiseman. Wiseman was sergeant-surgeon to Charles II and an influential surgical author. One of his published cases describes the sufferings of a twenty-six-year-old “Country maid.”The woman was afflicted with an ulcerated cancer of the right breast “arising from some accidental Bruise.” It had progressed to a grim stage. Wiseman decided the breast could not be cured, and urged that it should be cut off before “a Fungus” which he thought lay deep in the breast “should be fixed to the Ribs.”

Richard Wiseman. Source: National Library of Medicine, IHM. 101432120.

Wiseman won some sort of consent, though how ready it was is perhaps indicated by his explanation that she and her companions “were not unwilling that it should be cut off” and that their decision took a month. Wiseman himself seems to have been much more eager, having just received “the Royal Stiptick liquor” at the king’s command. He saw the surgery as “seasonable” for experimenting with it, in the presence of “some Friends who desired to see the efficacy.”

I should warn you that his description of the operation is difficult to read. Like many early modern surgeons’ description of operations, it also largely occludes the patient and her experience. I will quote it at length here, however, because I think that it gives a powerful glimpse of what an invasive procedure was like at this time. But please skip the next two paragraphs if that is not a glimpse you’d like to take. Wiseman’s associate, the physician Walter Needham,

pulled up the Breast while I made a Ligature upon the basis of it, and cut it off. The two Arteries bled forcibly out, till Doctor Needham applied a wet Button [lint soaked in the water] on the one, and… [an assistant] applied the other… [One] stopt the Bleeding at that very instant… but the bloud dribbled from under the other: which we supposed happened by reason of the bloud streaming upon it in the putting it on. But by the application of a fresh Button the Bleeding there also stopped. During this the Lips of the wound were brought nearer to each other by a cross stich. We then applied our Digestive with convenient Bandage over it, and laid the Patient in her Bed. [They left, and] In our absence she fainted, and upon the drinking a draught of cold water vomitted, and her Breast bled through the Dressings. Upon sight thereof I took off the Dressings, and seeing one of the Arteries seepe, I applied a fresh Dostil [dossil], and stopt it: but it being night, and dreading mischief might happen if it should bleed again, I sent for a small Button cautery, and that way secured it. (“I secured that Artery by the touch of a hot Iron,” he explained in another account of the operation.)

The woman had some difficulties after the operation, but she returned to the country a month and a half later. Once there, however, the cicatrix “fretted off” and the ulcer grew. She returned to Wiseman, who treated her successfully. “Since which time,” he concluded, “I have seen her often in Town in very good health, and her Breast firmly cicatrized, without pain or hardness.”3

It’s surgical measures like this that give us a sense of what what authors and compilers had in mind when they collected remedies that saved breasts destined for the knife or powerful chemicals. The Johanna St. John collection, featured in a number of earlier posts here, has a striking example. It is “For a Cancer in the Breast”:

A piece of a sheep skin taken off the Flank of the sheep lay the skin side to the breast changing it once in 12 hours & in hot weather once in 6 hours this was used to a woman whose breast was to be cut off but was not broke & it kept her very many years without any pain or trouble & at last died of another disease La Child knew the woman to whom it was taught by a French man.4

This tale, as well as the information about the provenance of the remedy and the presence of similar examples, indicates the involvement of collectors in a world of remedies for serious medical problems that offered them the chance to control the measures they used and offered them the hope of avoiding the most unpleasant. Quacks offered something similar when they peddled non-mercurial pox treatments.5

I am very interested to know whether you’ve found similar sorts of material in recipe books that might give evidence of therapeutic preferences. I’m also interested in how recipes (these sorts and others) have been or could be used in teaching the history of pre-modern medicine, especially to students in survey courses. In my favorite activity from the first half of our survey, we give groups of students a selection of seventeenth-century medical advertisements and ask them to think about what the advertisers were offering, how they offered it, and why it may have been appealing to consumers. Would it be possible to design similar sorts of lessons using selections from recipe collections? How else can we use collections and recipes in the classroom, especially when teaching students that are new to early modern history and working with primary sources?



1 “Seventeenth-Century English Surgery: The Casebook of Joseph Binns,” in Christopher Lawrence (ed.), Medical Theory, Surgical Practice: Studies in the History of Surgery (London: Routledge, 1992): 48-84, and Sufferers and Healers: The Experience of Illness in Seventeenth Century England (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), chp. 3.

2 Michael McVaugh, “Richard Wiseman and the Medical Practitioners of Restoration London,” Journal of the History of Medicine 62 (2007): 125-40. He briefly discusses this case on 133-34.

3 Eight Chirurgical Treatises, 3rd ed. (London: for B.T. and L.M., 1697), Wing W3106A, pg. 108-109, “Observat. of a Cancerous Breast cut off.” Phil. Trans. 8 (1673): 6039. Italics removed.

4 Wellcome MS 4338, fol 18v. I’ve modernized the spelling here.

5 For instance: Andrew Wear, Knowledge and Practice in English Medicine, 1550-1680 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 271.

One thought on “Early Modern Breast Surgeries and Recipes”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *