Cover image for Bathsheba's breast : women, cancer & history
Bathsheba's breast : women, cancer & history
Olson, James Stuart, 1946-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
x, 302 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


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Material Type
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RC280.B8 O465 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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"Breast cancer may very well be history's oldest malaise, known as well to the ancients as it is to us. The women who have endured it share a unique sisterhood. Queen Atossa and Dr. Jerri Nielsen--separated by era and geography, by culture, religion, politics, economics, and world view--could hardly have been more different. Born 2,500 years apart, they stand as opposite bookends on the shelf of human history. One was the most powerful woman in the ancient world, the daughter of an emperor, the mother of a god; the other is a twenty-first-century physician with a streak of adventure coursing through her veins. From the imperial throne in ancient Babylon, Atossa could not have imagined the modern world, and only in the driest pages of classical literature could Antarctica-based Jerri Nielsen even have begun to fathom the Near East five centuries before the birth of Christ. For all their differences, however, they shared a common fear that transcends time and space."--from Bathsheba's Breast

In 1967, an Italian surgeon touring Amsterdam's Rijks museum stopped in front of Rembrandt's Bathsheba at Her Bath , on loan from the Louvre, and noticed an asymmetry to Bathsheba's left breast; it seemed distended, swollen near the armpit, discolored, and marked with a distinctive pitting. With a little research, the physician learned that Rembrandt's model, his mistress Hendrickje Stoffels, later died after a long illness, and he conjectured in a celebrated article for an Italian medical journal that the cause of her death was almost certainly breast cancer.

A horror known to every culture in every age, breast cancer has been responsible for the deaths of 25 million women throughout history. An Egyptian physician writing 3,500 years ago concluded that there was no treatment for the disease. Later surgeons recommended excising the tumor or, in extreme cases, the entire breast. This was the treatment advocated by the court physician to sixth-century Byzantine empress Theodora, the wife of Justinian, though she chose to die in pain rather than lose her breast. Only in the past few decades has treatment advanced beyond disfiguring surgery.

In Bathsheba's Breast , historian James S. Olson--who lost his left hand and forearm to cancer while writing this book--provides an absorbing and often frightening narrative history of breast cancer told through the heroic stories of women who have confronted the disease, from Theodora to Anne of Austria, Louis XIV's mother, who confronted "nun's disease" by perfecting the art of dying well, to Dr. Jerri Nielson, who was dramatically evacuated from the South Pole in 1999 after performing a biopsy on her own breast and self-administering chemotherapy. Olson explores every facet of the disease: medicine's evolving understanding of its pathology and treatment options; its cultural significance; the political and economic logic that has dictated the terms of a war on a "woman's disease"; and the rise of patient activism. Olson concludes that, although it has not yet been conquered, breast cancer is no longer the story of individual women struggling alone against a mysterious and deadly foe.

Author Notes

James S. Olson is Distinguished Professor and Chair of the history department at Sam Houston State University. He is co-author (with Randy Roberts) of both Winning Is the Only Thing: Sports in America since 1945 , available from Johns Hopkins, and John Wayne: American .

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

Olson (history, Sam Houston State Univ.) lost his left hand and forearm to cancer, an experience that led him to research the history of breast cancer. His narrative history shows that this disease was known in ancient Egypt and that it took the lives of prominent women, including Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian; Anne of Austria, mother of Louis XIV of France; Mary Washington, mother of George; the environmentalist Rachel Carson; and many others. Olson examines the evolution of cancer research, the politics and economics of the disease, the gender dynamics of female patients and male physicians, and the rise of patient activism. The book chronicles advances in breast-cancer diagnosis and treatment and the uncertainty that women must face while making difficult choices. Unlike Ellen Leopold's A Darker Ribbon, which focuses on the relationships of two specific women with their physicians, Olson takes a broader view, showing that there is still a long way to go but that women no longer struggle alone. This historical take on an important topic, backed by extensive notes, is a good choice for public and academic libraries. Barbara M. Bibel, Oakland P.L., CA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

As an academic historian, Olson (Sam Houston State Univ.) was motivated by his own experience with cancer to write this work of scientific history. It reveals that in ancient times breast cancer was "The Cancer" and references were frequent to the devastating effects of the disease on individuals, families, communities, and kingdoms. Throughout this historical study of the manifestations and treatments of breast cancer, the author addresses the progress of treatments from ancient to modern times. Also brought to light are the controversies that have arisen with new research findings and the confusion that has evolved from the variety of current treatment options. Utilizing accounts of the experiences of well-known historical figures from Anne of Austria to Linda McCartney, the author weaves a story important to every woman who fears breast cancer and to all of those who care about her. An excellent, thought-provoking reference for lay audiences as well as health care professionals. General readers; upper-division undergraduates through professionals. M. P. Tarbox Mount Mercy College

Table of Contents

Prologue Across Time
1 Dark Ages
2 "Unkindest Cut of All"
The Origins Of The Mastectomy
3 William Stewert Halsted and the Radical Mastectomy
4 Superradicals and the Medicine of Mutilation
5 New Beginnings
Assault On The Radical Mastectomy
6 Beauty and the Breast
The Great American Obsession
7 Out of the Closet
Breast Cancer In The 1970's
8 Patient Heal Thyself
Quacks And Cures In The Age Of Narcissism
9 Choices
Medical Treatment In The Age Of Liberation
10 The Breast Cancer Wars
11 Biology, Society, and Destiny
Epilogue: The New Millenium