What Was Cancer? Definition, Diagnosis and Cause

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


Published in 1721, Nathan Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary demonstrates the complexity of early modern perceptions of, and terms for, cancerous disease. In Bailey’s definitions, cancer slips between identification by its prognosis, origins and stage. Not everything that looks like a cancer is a cancer — ‘Carcinodes’ merely imitates that disease — but it is unclear on what basis one can differentiate between ‘real’ and false cancers, or spot a cancer in the first place. Moreover, Bailey’s dictionary only scratched the surface of the variance seen in texts discussing cancer, which included differences in terminology and definition almost as numerous as those who wrote them down. The project of this chapter, therefore, is to determine how we should understand early modern cancer(s). Can we treat ‘cancer’ as a single disease, with a single name? What made this disease different from others with similar symptoms? By what other terms might it have been recognised, and how was it identified in early modern medical practice?


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Copyright information

© Alanna Skuse 2015

Authors and Affiliations

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

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