Friday, 13 June 2014

"The dreadful steel": A Terrible Surgery for Frances Burney

Frances Burney (aka Fanny Burney, Madame d'Arblay; Lynn Regis, Norfolk, (now King's Lynn), England, 13th June 1752 – Bath, Somerset, England, 6th January 1840)


Frances d'Arblay (Fanny Burney) by Edward Francisco Burney, 1784
Frances d'Arblay (Fanny Burney) by Edward Francisco Burney, 1784
Today marks the birthday of a particular favourite of mine, Fanny Burney. Although she was not always the most understanding person, as Mrs Thrale might testify, she was, at times, something of a force of nature. Today, on the anniversary of her birth, I have another grisly tale of unanaesthetised  groundbreaking surgery to relate, so grit your teeth and read on.

In 1810 Fanny was living in Passy, just outside Paris, with General Alexandre D'Arblay, her husband of 17 years. For some time she had been complaining of recurring pains in her breast and, fearing she was suffering form cancer, the General summoned a phalanx of leading physicians to tend his wife. Her case was taken on by Antoine Dubois, the most celebrated surgeon in France and a personal doctor to Empress Marie Louise. Although he confirmed the cancer, Dubois privately believed that it had progressed too far for treatment and a distraught D'Arblay handed the responsibility for his wife's medical care over to Dominique Jean Larrey.

In fact, Larrey too was reluctant to operate as he feared that he would simply hasten Fanny's demise. He sought advice and eventually it was agreed that, if she was to stand any chance of recovery, a mastectomy must be performed. At this point Dubois returned to the fold to direct the team of seven who would conduct the operation, with Larrey taking the role of chief surgeon at the patient's own request.

Understandably, Fanny was terrified of what the future might hold but kept her nerve stoically until, on 30 September 1811, the operation began. With no anaesthetic, her suffering was immense and she later wrote at great length on the experience, leaving us in no doubt as to the agony she endured. Yet even then she felt more pity for the surgeons carrying out the work than for herself and though the operation lasted just 20 minutes, it must have felt like an eternity.

She wrote to her sister, Esther, of the experience. It is not an easy account to share and we can only marvel at both the skill of the surgeons and the fortitude of their patient.

Yet -- 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 felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound. I concluded the operation was over – Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed – & worse than ever, to separate the bottom, the foundation of this dreadful gland from the parts to which it adhered – Again all description would be baffled – yet again all was not over, – Dr. Larry rested but his own hand, & -- Oh heaven! – I then felt the knife (rack)ling against the breast bone – scraping it!

Although her recovery was a long and uncomfortable process, Frances Burney did indeed recover and lived on for a further 29 years. She remains an icon of the Georgian era, whilst those doctors who attended her went on to continue their own illustrious, celebrated careers.

30 comments:

  1. Makes my cancer operation seem inconsequential.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's one of the least attractive aspects of living in a past era; thank goodness for the advances medicine has made.

      Delete
    2. No one's cancer is inconsequential, dear friend. But one shudders on the one hand, and yet marvels that she survived, without infection or complications or recurrence for 29 years. Wonderful.

      Delete
    3. Dinah, hear hear on both points!

      Delete
  2. Yes, what a very brave lady

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'd read about Madame D'Arblay's operation before, but I never knew that her doctor was THAT Larrey! It really was a small world. . .

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It truly was and I imagine, once one found a good physician, one held onto him for dear life!

      Delete
  4. Ok, so I winced at the details of cutting and the description of air entering the open wound, but the thought of the knife scraping on the breast bone was too much! How on earth did she survive that! Poor woman.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's the detail that makes me wince too, the breast bone!

      Delete
  5. What is worse is that today doctors do not think it was cancer at all and that the whole operation was unnecessary. She is fortunate to have lived but sometimes I wonder if she thought so as she outlived both her husband and son. The chance of dying of an infction after the opertion was great. The surgeons did a fasntastic job and gave her excellent treatment but it does make one wince and shudder just reading about the pain she endured.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. To me, it's utterly unimaginable. The very thought of enduring such treatment is horrific!

      Delete
  6. Horrific description. It's a wonder she didn't die of shock.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Oh my, it's a wonder she didn't pass out. Incredibly brave lady! I'm still wincing and shuddering just at the imagery o_O

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think I'd *want* to pass out; I shudder just thinking about it!

      Delete
  8. This is an incredible story.. I always say that the best discovery in the word for me is " Anesthesia" ...<3

    ReplyDelete
  9. Goodness what a tale! While we have anesthesia and pain killers, basic treatment for the disease is roughly the same, no? Terrible steel indeed. {reminds self to schedule mammogram}

    ReplyDelete
  10. Astonishing. It shows a great deal about what the human body can endure.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Wow, a brave woman indeed! Thanks for sharing this story.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I am a big fan of Fanny Burney, mainly due to my enjoyment of her father, Dr. Charles, and also for her participation in 1790's salons. Now that is coupled with admiration for her serious fortitude!

    ReplyDelete