U.S. History 1301
Dying of Breast Cancer in the 1800s
Abigail “Nabby” Adams was a well-known woman in her time; not only because she was the daughter of President John Adams, but for her brutal breast cancer surgery. Nabby’s surgery was the most advanced form of medicine and the only method of her time. Her case along with others still continues to have an impact on the lives of many women today.
In 1808, Abigail “Nabby” Adams began to notice a small dimple in her breast. She did not think much of it at first but, over several months the dimple became more pronounced and within a year it became a hard lump beneath the skin. Nabby, trying to ignore the lump, busied herself with many activities and household chores. Her once small dimple had now undergone ominous growth and in February of 1811 she wrote home to her parents stating that her doctor diagnosed her with breast cancer. By June, the lump was visible to the naked eye. Frantic, Nabby returned to her parents in Massachusetts and wrote to a close family friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush. John and Abigail took Nabby to the best physicians in Boston, each telling her that her cancer was neither serious nor dangerous. Soon after the reassuring news from the physicians, they received Dr. Rush’s response to Nabby’s letter. In the first letter, Nabby said that her mass was movable. Rush, like any other doctor, saw this as a good sign, but he also told her that she was going to have to go “under the knife.” Any surgery in the nineteenth century was brutal, feared and was always the last resort. Nabby and her family feared the surgery but knew it was needed. The day before her surgery, Nabby along with her husband and her daughter traveled from Quincy to Boston. That afternoon, they met with Dr. John Warren to go over the surgery and explain more of what was going on. The surgery materials consisted of a large fork, a razor, compress bandages, and a large heated spatula. The day of the surgery, she...