June 13, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
Today marks the birthday of the English novelist and playwright Fanny Burney, born in 1752, whose Evelina, Cecilia, Camilla, and The Wanderer were all major sensations in her day. Hers were satirical novels—often now called proto-Austenian—which were highly regarded by contemporary critics as well as readers.
Burney wrote one of the earliest accounts of a mastectomy—her own—which she was, horrifyingly, awake enough to observe. The operation was 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 latter of whom was considered the number-one doctor in France. Warning: the account, taken from a letter to her sister, gets a little gory, so it’s not for the faint of heart. But Burney did survive, until 1840, at least. Of course, we can't be sure she really had cancer: she had pains in her breast, but in the absence of a biopsy, it’s hard to know.
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 When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were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!