[Frances Burney (1752–1840), also known as Fanny Burney, was an English novelist, diarist and playwright. She met and impressed Samuel Johnson, who she corresponded with for a number of years. She married a French exile from the revolution, General Alexandre D’Arblay. She and their son followed D’Arblay to France in 1802, a year after D’Arblay had accepted service with Napoleon’s government. Expecting to stay a year, she remained there for ten because of the outbreak of war between England and France. The following is from the Wikipedia article.]
In August 1810 Burney developed pains in her breast, which her husband suspected could be due to breast cancer. Through her royal network of acquaintances she was eventually treated by several leading physicians and finally, a year later, on 30 September 1811, she underwent a mastectomy performed by “7 men in black, Dr. Larrey, M. Dubois, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Aumont, Dr. Ribe, & a pupil of Dr. Larrey, & another of M. Dubois.” The operation was performed in the manner of a battlefield operation under the command of M. Dubois, then accoucheur (midwife or obstetrician) to the Empress Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma, and considered to be the best doctor in France. Burney was later able to describe the operation in detail, since she was conscious through most of it, as it took place before the development of anaesthetics.
I mounted, therefore, unbidden, the Bed stead—& M. Dubois placed me upon the Mattress, & spread a cambric handkerchief upon my face. It was transparent, however, & I saw, through it, that the Bed stead was instantly surrounded by the 7 men & my nurse. I refused to be held; but when, Bright through the cambric, I saw the glitter of polished Steel—I closed my Eyes. I would not trust to convulsive fear the sight of the terrible incision. Yet—when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast—cutting through veins—arteries—flesh—nerves—I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision—& I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still? so excruciating was the agony. When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound. I concluded the operation was over—Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed—& worse than ever, to separate the bottom, the foundation of this dreadful gland from the parts to which it adhered—Again all description would be baffled—yet again all was not over,—Dr. Larry rested but his own hand, &—Oh heaven!—I then felt the knife (rack)ling against the breast bone—scraping it!
She sent her first-person account of this experience months later to her sister Esther without rereading it, and it remains one of the most compelling early accounts of a mastectomy. It is impossible to know today whether the breast removed was indeed cancerous or whether she suffered from mastopathy. She survived and returned to England in 1812 to visit her ailing father and to avoid young Alexander’s conscription into the French army, while still in recovery from her own illness.
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