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The way we were: Under the knife

Two extracts from letters and diaries about 19th-century surgery

By Ian Irvine   October 2010

30th September, 1811. After the diagnosis of breast cancer, Fanny Burney writes to her sister describing her radical mastectomy performed without anaesthetic in Paris

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 When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts…

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