• Alanna Skuse
Open Access
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine book series


On an unknown date in the mid-seventeenth century, Mrs Townsend, of Alverston in Gloucestershire, steeled herself for a dangerous but potentially life-saving operation. Mrs Townsend had breast cancer, and she was to have her breast ‘taken off’ by two surgeons, Mr Linch and Mr Clark. Watching the operation was Reverend John Ward, vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon. He recorded the events in his diary:

They had their needles and waxt thread ready, but never ust them; and allso their cauterizing irons, but they used them not: she lost not above [six ounces] of blood in all. Dr. Needham coming too late, staid next day to see it opened. He said it was a melliceris, and not a perfect cancer; but it would have been one quickly. There came out a gush of a great quantitie of waterish substance, as much as would fill a flaggon; when they had done, they cutt off, one one bitt, another another, and putt a glass of wine in and some lint, and so let it alone till the next day; then they opend it again, and injected myrrhe, aloes, and such things as resisted putrefaction, and so bound it upp againe.

Every time they dresst it, they cutt off something of the cancer that was left behind; the chyrurgions were for applying a caustick, but Dr. Needham said no, not till the last, since she could endure the knife …One of the chyrurgeons told her afterwards, that she had endured soe much, that he would have lost his life ere he would have sufferd the like; and the Dr. said he had read that women would endure more than men, but did not beleeve it till now.1


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Copyright information

© Alanna Skuse 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alanna Skuse
    • 1
  1. 1.Folger Shakespeare LibraryUSA

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