The horror of surgery before anesthetics

Through a link in an article at Taki’s Magazine, I came across Fanny Burney‘s description of her mastectomy in 1811.  It’s horrifyingly graphic in its details, and conveys the agony of surgery without anesthetic better than anything else I’ve ever read.  Here’s one paragraph from her account.

… when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast—cutting through veins—arteries—flesh—nerves—I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision—and I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still! so excruciating was the agony. When the wound was made, and the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp and forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound—but when again I felt the instrument—describing a curve—cutting against the grain, if I may so say, while the flesh resisted in a manner so forcible as to oppose and tire the hand of the operator, who was forced to change from the right to the left—then, indeed, I thought I must have expired.

There’s more at the link.

Ghastly to read, but it makes me very thankful that anesthetics have been available for all the surgeries I’ve undergone!



  1. Not pleasant reading for the delicate of stomach.

    Humans can be amazingly tough. I remember reading about an early mountain man, a fur trapper IIRC, who injured his foot. Gangrene set in, and he realized he'd need to amputate. He was out there all alone, not even any natives in the area to help. He had to take his own leg off at the knee, using one heated knife to cauterize parts, another to cut through the joint as he didn't have a suitable bone saw. Apparently he had sufficient whiskey, however, to make it. He lived to tell the story at the next fur rendezvous. Now THAT is one tough hombre.

  2. Unfortunately I really don't have to imagine it.

    I once scraped my toe and knee, and then went to camp. The camp didn't have showers and my knee and toe became infected. I was taken to the hospital where they said that they'd have to scrub away the infection (with something that resembled a brillo pad) and that because the blood had to run, they couldn't give me any anesthetic — not even a local. That was very very painful.

  3. Perhaps the amazing part is the surgeons of the day were trained to carry on the operation though the patient is screaming and writhing in agony, until they may (thankfully) pass out from the pain. Being something of a Sadist seems necessary to the profession…..

  4. I have often said that the debt society owes the inventors of anethesia is the among biggest there is.

    The world record for removing a leg just above the knee was set before anesthesia and still stands at 42 seconds. The surgeon also took off two of his assistant's fingers.

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