A Mastectomy: Letter to Esther Burney
Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction
- Mathiasen, Helle
- Date of entry: Apr-16-2007
- Last revised: May-02-2017
A rare patient narrative from 1812 describes a mastectomy performed before the introduction of anesthesia. This letter from Frances d'Arblay (1752-1840) (née Frances [Fanny] Burney), addressed to her older sister, Esther, details her operation in Paris by one of Napoleon's surgeons.In her childhood and youth, Fanny Burney moved in the best London society; she was a friend of Dr. Johnson who admired her. She served five years at the court of George III and Queen Charlotte as Second Keeper of the Royal Robes (1786-1791). Fanny Burney married Adjutant-General in the army of Louis XVI Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard d'Arblay in 1793. He had fled to England after the Revolution. They lived in England and spent ten years in France (1802-1812).Burney's mastectomy took place 30 September 1811. The patient wrote about her experience nine months later. She chronicles the origin of her tumor and her pain. She is constantly watched by "The most sympathising of Partners" (128), her husband, who arranges for her to see a doctor. She warns her sister and nieces not to wait as long as she did. At first resisting out of fear, the patient agrees to see Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey (1766-1842), First Surgeon to the Imperial Guard.He asks for her written consent to guide her treatment; her four doctors request her formal consent to the operation, and she makes arrangements to keep her son, Alex, and her husband, M. d'Arblay, away. Her husband arranges for linen and bandages, she makes her will, and writes farewell letters to her son and spouse. A doctor gives her a wine cordial, the only anesthetic she receives. Waiting for all the doctors to arrive causes her agony, but at three o'clock, "my room, without previous message, was entered by 7 Men in black" (136).She sees "the glitter of polished Steel" (138). The extreme pain of the surgery makes her scream; she feels the knife scraping her breastbone. The doctors lift her up to put her to bed "& I then saw my good Dr. Larry, pale nearly as myself, his face streaked with blood, & its expression depicting grief, apprehension, & almost horrour" (140).Her husband adds a few lines. These are followed by a medical report in French by Baron Larrey's 'Chief Pupil'. He states that the operation to remove the right breast at 3:45pm and that the patient showed "un Grand courage" (141). She lives another twenty-nine years. It is impossible to determine whether her tumor was malignant.
The letter is in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York Public Library, New York.
Fanny Burney. Selected Letters and Journals