Sunday, October 30, 2011

Breast Cancer Awareness, 1777

A number of years ago I found myself standing before a painting of a female patient in bed, surrounded by guests and various attendants. One side of her chest was covered in blood. I was looking at a mastectomy from 1777. The piece was created as an ex voto, a devotional painting, given as an offering of gratitude to a saint.

Translation of the text on the painting :
Doña Josefa Peres Maldonado offers this monument of her gratitude to the Most Holy Christ of Encino, venerated in the Church of Triana, and to the Most Holy Virgin Mary of El Pueblo, in perpetual memory of the benefit, due to her piety, that resulted from an operation that took place on 25th of April 1777, when the surgeon Don Pedro Maillé removed six cancerous tumors from her breast, in the presence of the gentlemen and ladies depicted on this canvas. Although the wound closed perfectly on the 25th of July 1777, other accidents befell her from which she died on Friday, the 5th of September, at 3 p.m., with clear signs of the patronage of the Holy Image and of her salvation.

As Breast Cancer Awareness Month, aka October, comes to a close I wanted to post this surprising early depiction. I found a number of other early visualizations of the disease, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries. They are just about all, medical in nature, and are way more graphic than the Maldonado ex voto. And way more horrifying than any Halloween post I could come up with. By the end of October, breast cancer might seem like it's all pink ribbons and teddy bears, but these pictures can remind us of what all the pink was about to begin with.

For multiple views about the breast-cancer awareness movement, listen to “Pink Fatigue” on NPR, and the interview with an outraged Barbara Ehrenreich. The writer, whose latest book is Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, was treated for breast cancer in 2001. Ehrenreich challenges the pink-ribbon culture, with its cutesiness and heavily marketed product tie-ins. She resents, as well, the “survivor” label and the current emphasis on embracing breast cancer as a growth experience.

"This is ugly, this is nasty," she says. "I want to know why it happens and stop it."

For more Ehrenreich, read Smile, You’ve Got Cancer.

Kamata Keishu, 1851
Excision of a cancerous growth from a woman's breast, an operation which Hanaoka Seishu first carried out in 1804 using general anesthetic.
Wellcome Library, London

Lorenz Heister, 1748
Latent or occult breast cancer, mastectomy and
relevant surgical instruments.
Wellcome Library, London

circa 1675
Illustration of a woman having a breast operation, accompanied by a close up of the surgical instruments used. From a compendium of popular medicine and surgery, receipts, etc., in German. Compiled for the use of a House of the Franciscan Order, probably in Austria, or South Germany.
Wellcome Library, London

Jacob Nicolas Henri, 1860s
Nicolas Henri Jacob (1782–1871), was a student of the French painter Jacques Louis David. He illustrated the eight-volume treatise, Atlas of Anatomy by French anatomist, Jean-Baptiste Marc Bougery (1797–1849).
Source: Cerebral coffins, Medical Illustrations

Afflicted, Gentlefolk Leeds, 1841
One of six portraits forming a group of works entitled "Gentlefolk of Leeds Afflicted with Disease." Mrs Prince of Coborough Street, after the surgical removal of her right breast.
Wellcome Library, London

Mastectomy, Johns Hopkins Medical Reports
Source: The National Library of Medicine

Attributed to a Dutch artist, 17th century
The operator excises the breast with the "tenaculum helvetianum". His assistant has a case of lancets etc. attached to his belt. A set of cautery irons is smouldering on a stand on the left. The patient is seated, held by two men: she appears to be fainting. On the right, a man in a tall hat points towards her: he is possibly meant to be a physician.
Wellcome Library, London

Lam Qua, 1830s
A woman with a tumour in her right breast which
is expanding over her trunk.
Wellcome Library, London

One of the many pink bears out there. provides the opportunity to make a statement and be the winners you all are in the walk of life …”

The trigger for Ehrenreich’s backlash against pink-think cutesiness was an ad for a pink breast cancer teddy bear she saw while waiting for her mammogram results. "That was kind of an existential turning point for me because I realized I'm not afraid of dying, but I am terrified of dying with a pink teddy bear tucked under my arm."

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! I love some of these images, too. I'm a project assistant in medical history, and chanced upon the 'Gentlefolk of Leeds' series of paintings recently on the Wellcome site. I must confess to have developed something of a girl-crush on Mrs Elizabeth Prince: I love her bold expression and half-smile, and find her very attractive. She has a webpage of her own on a family history site. It amused me that the Wellcome guessed her age as 40: she was 54, and tragically died the year the picture was painted.

    I agree about the fightback against 'pinkification'. Another wonderful image to use is Michelangelo's Night: she's very heroic-looking. (NB: the tethering and swelling on her left breast; also there seems to be a lump on the right, on which her plait of hair is resting.)


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