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Views & Reviews Past Caring

Extreme measures: the history of breast cancer surgery

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 08 February 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e834
  1. Wendy Moore, freelance writer and author, London
  1. wendymoore{at}

The rage for breast surgery attained manic proportions in the late 19th century in the United States and Europe. But the trend was driven by surgeons, not women, and the results were far from aesthetic.

Surgeons in ancient Egypt described breast cancer, but wisely refrained from wielding the knife. The first recorded attempt at mastectomy is attributed to the surgeon Leonides of Alexandria in about the second century AD, but caution remained the watchword. By the 1600s prints in northern Europe show women stoically undergoing breast amputations by surgeons using forceps, knives, and cauterising irons long before the arrival of anaesthesia or antisepsis.

In 1748 the German surgeon Lorenz Heister described using a fork, or ropes attached …

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