Curious facts from the past

Edwin Smith papyrus

The first documented record of breast cancer is from Ancient Egypt and is found in the “Edwin Smith Papyrus” dating from 1500 BC. The papyrus lists 48 surgical cases with details of treatments. Case 45 “instructions concerning bulging tumours on the breast” rather ominously states, “for this there is no cure”.

It was Hippocrates in the 5th century BC who gave cancer its name – karkinos, the Greek word for crab. He noticed that the swollen blood vessels around a tumour resembled the pincers of a crab.

Hippocrates believed that illness was caused when the “humours” were in a state of imbalance. In the case of cancer this was due to an excess of black bile or “melancholia” (melas=black, cholia=bile). He advised cures such as bleeding, purging, emetics and also the removal of tumours.

For centuries breast cancer had the nickname “The Nuns ‘Disease “due to the prevalence of the disease in convents. Modern epidemiologists put this down to the increased risk of breast cancer in women who have not had children and have not breast fed. But, in the view of a 17th century doctor Bernadino Ramazinni, it was a lack of intercourse which caused disturbances in the uterus which then led to cancerous tumours in the breast.

Other bizarre explanations as to why breast cancer occurred included tight clothing and lacing, depression and a blow to breast.

Fanny Burney

Mastectomies have been performed since ancient times. The most famous account of a pre-anaesthesia mastectomy comes from the author Fanny Burney who underwent a mastectomy in 1811. She wrote an account of her ordeal in a letter to her sister some months later. It makes for harrowing reading.

The 19th century saw two major breakthroughs in surgery –anaesthesia was first used by William Morton in 1846 and in 1865, Joseph Lister began experiments leading to the understanding of the spread of infection and the introduction of sterile surgery. In 1869 Lister performed a mastectomy on his sister on the dining room table using ether as anaesthesia and carbolic acid as his antiseptic.

Many anticancer drugs were discovered accidentally:
– The effect on the lymphatic system of sulphur mustard gas used in the 1st world war eventually led to the use of chemotherapy.
– Tamoxifen was created in 1962, during experiments to create a “morning after” pill. It was later discovered to be a powerful oestrogen blocker.

Further Reading

Leopold, Ellen. 1999. A Darker Ribbon: Breast Cancer, Women, and their Doctors in the Twentieth Century. Boston: Beacon Press.

Mukhjerjee, Siddhartha. 2011. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Harper Collins

Olson, James. 2002. Bathsheba’s Breast: Women, Cancer, and History. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press.


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