Bathsheba's Breast: Women, Cancer & History


Bathsheba's Breast: Women, Cancer & History


In 1654, Rembrandt painted a picture of his mistress entitled “Bathsheba at her bath”. Over 300 years later, an Italian physician viewed the painting and noticed several characteristics of the left breast indicative of breast cancer. This title underlies James S. Olson’s book: Bathsheba’s breast: women, cancer & history, in which he examines breast cancer throughout history.

The first descriptions of breast cancer were traced back to Egypt in 1500 BCE. In the fifth century BCE, Hippocrates led the quest to determine the scientific underpinnings of this disease, eventually attributing its cause to “black bile”. It wasn’t until the 1700s when these beliefs were overtaken by more cell-based theories, and tumour removal under surgery was considered to be the most appropriate treatment.

From the 1900s, a steady advance in scientific and therapeutic approaches to treatment began. Surgeries performed without antiseptic or anaesthesia, superradical mastectomies removing whole sections of women’s bodies, and adrenalectomies, oophorectomies, and hypophysectomies were all commonplace in the treatment of the cancer and to reduce the risk of recurrence.

It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that radiotherapy and chemotherapy took hold, spurred by chemical discoveries and the demand for less mutilating treatments. The age of female liberation in the 1970s began to form current approaches including mammography, lumpectomy, and hormone therapy.

Many women throughout history have fought breast cancer. Theodora, Empress of Byzantium, refused a mastectomy after repeated excisions and cauterisation, and died of breast cancer in 584 AD. Anne of Austria, the queen mother of France, died of breast cancer in 1666 at the Val-de-Grace convent that she had founded – in this sanctuary, she had cared for many nuns with the same disease. Klara Hitler, Adolf Hitler’s mother, died of breast cancer after diagnosis and treatment in 1905. Over 30 years later, Hitler provided her physician, Edward Bloch, safe flight from Germany despite knowing that he was Jewish.

James S. Olson. Bathsheba’s breast Women, cancer & history.
2005.Johns Hopkins University Press.: Baltimore, Maryland, USA.302 pp. ISBN: 0-8018-8064-5 (paperback).


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