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Anesthesiology, Cancer, History

A 60-year-old missionary recounts a mastectomy in 1855

Today Letters of Note is featuring a fascinating letter from Lucy Thurston, a 60-year-old missionary living in 1855 Hawaii, in which she recounts undergoing a mastectomy without anesthesia. Writing to her daughter, she describes how the procedure began:

Thus instructed, and everything in readiness. Dr. Ford looked me full in the face, and with great firmness asked: “Have you made up your mind to have it cut out?” “Yes, sir.” “Are you ready now?” “Yes, sir; but let me know when you begin, that I may be able to bear it. Have you your knife in that hand now?” He opened his hand that I might see it, saying, “I am going to begin now.”

The rest of the letter isn’t for squeamish readers, but it does provide a fascinating look at 19th-century medicine. Reading it will make you very thankful for modern anesthesiology.

Happily, Thurston lived for many years after her mastectomy: “And here is again your mother, engaged in life’s duties, and life’s warfare.”

Photo of Lucy Thurston is in the public domain

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