Abigail Adams — The Woman Who Had a Mastectomy............Without Anesthesia

Abigail Adams was the daughter of the second President of the United States, John Adams, and the sister of John Quincy Adams, the sixth

President of the United States. In 1811, when she was only 44 and living in the “frontier” of upstate New York, Abigail discovered a lump in her left breast. Doctors were summoned, but medical knowledge was still in its infancy, especially in remote locations. They recognized the cancerous tumor easily enough, but were at odds as to how to treat it. When she finally told her parents, they insisted that she come to Boston for better treatment. It was Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the best known physicians in the country and a close friend of John Adams, who insisted that Abigail undergo immediate surgery or she wouldn't survive. Very little actual and factual documentation exists regarding Abigail’s surgery, other than that it was done on the kitchen table of her house. She was also fully clothed for modesty, required only to expose her left breast. Unfortunately for Abigail, there was no anesthesia. It’s likely that she fainted, which would have spared her the excruciating pain. When the breast was completely removed, the doctors noticed that the tumor appeared larger and more widespread than originally believed, but they had done their best. It was seven months before Abigail was well enough to return to upstate New York, but she wasn’t cured. The cancer had metastasized even before her operation. In the Spring of 1813, she returned to her parents’ home once more, this time to die. She died on August 9, 1813, a few weeks after she arrived. Just as she had wished, she died surrounded by her family.