Conclusion: ‘Death Is Only Their Desire’

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


This book began with the gruesome record made by Reverend John Ward of a mastectomy operation carried out on ‘Mrs Townsend’. In 1666, Ward added the following account:

Mrs. Townsend, of Alverston, being dead of a cancer, Mr. Eedes and I opened her breast in the outward part, and found it very cancrous; it had been broken, and a mellicerous part was yet remaining when we saw it, which being launct, yielded two porringers full of a very yellow substance…The flesh that was growne againe, after part was taken out, was of a hard gristly substance, which seemed very strange. The ribbs were not putrefied as we could discerne, nor anything within the breast of a cancrous nature, for we runne the knife with-inside the breast through the intercostal muscles. Dr. Needham hath affirmed that a cancer is as much within as without the breast, and he hath seen a string, as I was told, going from the breast to the uterus. I suppose it was the mammillarie veins full of knotts which were cancrous, and hung much like ropes of onions. The cancer was a strange one, as was evident; we wanted spunges and other things convenient, or else we had opened the cavitie of the breast.1


  1. Richard Wiseman, Several Chirurgical Treatises (second edition) (London: 1686), p. 117.Google Scholar
  2. 1.
    Reverend John Ward, Diary of the Rev. John Ward, A.M., Extending from 1648 to 1679, ed. Charles Severn (London: Henry Coldurn, 1839), pp. 245–7. From Internet Archive (online resource),, 2 March 2012.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Claude Deshaies Gendron, Enquiries into the Nature, Knowledge, and Cure of Cancers (London: 1701), pp. 119–20; Lazarius Riverius, The Practice of Physick (trans. with additions by Nicholas Culpeper, Abdiah Cole and William Rowland) (London: 1655), pp. 492–3; Daniel Sennert, Nicholas Culpeper and Abdiah Cole, Practical Physick: The Fourth Book, in Three Parts (London: 1664), p. 215.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See Michael Stolberg, Experiencing Illness and the Sick Body in Early Modern Europe (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 10.
    See Barron H. Lerner, The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear, and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), especially pp. 269–74.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    Hephzibah Roskelly, ‘I Meditate on Descartes’, Social Semiotics 22:1 (February 2012), 35. See also Nadine Ehlers and Shiloh Krupar, ‘Introduction: The Body in Breast Cancer’, Social Semiotics 22:1 (February 2012), 1–11; James T. Patterson, The Dread Disease: Cancer and Modern American Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), especially pp. 30–2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Alanna Skuse 2015

Authors and Affiliations

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

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