This is a prequel to the topics described by Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris on the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. Stay tuned for her interview to be published on Friday!
I often joke that The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice is all about ‘the horrors of pre-anaesthetic surgery’ and yet, I’ve never written an article which focuses primarily on the patient’s experience before the widespread use of ether beginning in the 1840s. Suffice-to-say, it was not a pleasant affair.
In 1750, the anatomist, John Hunter, colourfully described surgery as ‘a humiliating spectacle of the futility of science’ and the surgeon as ‘a savage armed with a knife’. He was not far from the truth. Surgery was brutal and only to be undertaken in extreme circumstances. In 1811, Fanny Burney had a mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She later recorded the incident vividly for posterity:
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!
Fanny (pictured right) went on to depict her own terror as one that ‘surpasses all description’. The agony, she said, was ‘excruciating’. So terrible was the operation that her surgeons decided to limit her anxiety by choosing a day at random and giving her only two hours notice before they began.
Fanny was one of the lucky ones. Not only did she survive surgery, but she also went on to live for another 28 years. Others were not so fortunate. When Stephen Pollard underwent an operation to remove a bladder stone in 1828, he did so under the gaze of 200 spectators. What should have lasted 5 minutes ended up taking almost an hour. The surgeon, Bransby Cooper, fumbled and panicked, cursing the patient loudly for having ‘a very deep perineum,’ while the patient, in turn, cried: ‘Oh! let it go; —pray, let it keep in!’
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