Gross Moments in Breast Cancer History #1: Cannibalistic Medicine

I’m currently reading James S. Olson’s history of breast cancer, Bathsheba’s Breast: Women, Cancer, and History. I’ll probably review it when I’m done (spoiler: so far, it’s excellent), but I wanted to share a moment that was icky enough to make me write “!” in the margins.

Gross-out Moment #1 (“#1” because there are more):

Before the eighteenth century, doctors believed that breast cancer was caused by an imbalance of the “humors” (a theory they got from the ancient physician Galen). They theorized that breast cancer was caused by a build up of acidic “black bile” in the body. This was because breast cancer was often only detected at a very late stage when tumors had burst forth through the skin and the ulcers seeped black goo, among other things. Lovely image, right? That’s not even the gross part.

In 1751, a French doctor named Jean Astruc, the king’s personal physician, wanted to prove that breast cancer was not caused by acidic buildup in the body. Here’s how he did it:

“In 1751 he took a piece of breast tissue, along with a slice of beef, burned them both in an oven, and then chewed on both specimens. Detecting no difference in taste, he decided the tumor tissue did not contain unusual amounts of bile or acid, and he subsequently repudiated the black bile theory of cancer” (32).

Yes, he ate a piece of someone’s breast to test a scientific theory. There’s probably a metaphor here somewhere. I’m not sure how cannibalism disproves the humors theory of breast cancer, but it was enough to convince his contemporaries.

 

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