Cancer in Regency England, by Colin Rowland

Cancer in Regency England, by Colin Rowland

The past month or two has seen the state of my health negatively affected, and with it my ability to write, or in most cases, form a sensical thought and carry it forward to conclusion. What with the effects of chemo, coupled with a broken back(my own fault; I tripped over the dog running for the bathroom. Twice in one week.), not only my desire but my cognitive ability to compose much more than a single sentence has suffered. Last night, in a rare moment of clarity, I began to wonder about the prevalence of cancer in Jane Austen’s England.


  • The disease, while rare, was not completely unknown, although its cause and treatment were more or less dependent upon which doctor or medical professional(and I use both terms loosely, as the term medical professional in Regency England is an oxymoron), diagnosed and treated you. Despite the invention of the single lens microscope in the 1700’s, its use as a diagnostic tool was not widely known or understood, so even the pronouncement of cancer would have been somewhat suspect.


  • So who would you see for an such ailment? If you chose a physician, you were given an exam based upon what he could see. Forget the idea of a physical examination, where you were prodded or even touched to assist in arriving at a conclusion; a physician would not lower himself to such a degree! If your ailment could not be determined visually you might receive any of a number of diagnoses and treatments, few of which had any effect on the actual disease itself.


  • But, you say, would it not have made more sense to visit a surgeon? After all, they were more familiar with the workings of the human body, having seen it in various stages of health and illness. In the time period we are talking about, a surgeon was just as likely to “bleed” you as to undertake any scientific investigation as to the cause and remedy for your ailment, and if he decided to operate, you would go under the knife without any form of anesthesia. No thank you!


  • As I have already mentioned, the disease itself was known, although what caused it and how to treat it were a matter of debate. ranging from the removal of the offending organ as well as, in some medical opinions, surrounding organs and tissue. While I have muttered, to all and sundry, that my treatment feels worse than the disease itself, in Regency England this appears to be the actual case.


  • For breast cancer, the first recorded mastectomy that I could find was in the Netherlands in the 18th century by a Dutch surgeon, who claimed that surgery cured the disease. I truly feel for the poor unfortunate woman who was subjected to this treatment, without anesthetic or even sterilization of the surgical instruments. In this time period, while surgical procedures were advancing, albeit slowly, the efficacy of sterilization was not known or practiced, so while the operation might cure the existing issue, infection introduced during the procedure  was often as likely to kill you as the ailment you were being treated for.


  • Sterilization was not unknown in medicine; the Romans and Greeks both used it in the treatment of injured soldiers, and the Israelites had the Law of Moses, which gave precise instructions for the preparation of everything from foods to bodies of the newly deceased. What was not known was the link between sterilization and its affect on bacteria and the subsequent infection of patients.


To be afflicted with cancer in Jane Austen’s England was a death sentence, the rapidity of which depended upon the form of the disease and its virulence within the body. While one may, with enough diligent research and tenacity, find accounts of miracle cures, I would tend to ascribe them to misdiagnosis rather than effective treatment.

We are fortunate to live in a time of rapidly expanding knowledge. I was taught in high school that discoveries in the fields of science and medicine were doubling humankind’s knowledge every twenty-five to fifty years. I would hazard a guess that the time frame has shortened  drastically to every one to five. Amazing treatments and procedures are discovered or instituted every year, and survivability from the scourge of cancer has in many cases gone from no chance to upwards of eighty to ninety percent or greater. Unfortunately, it also seems that our reliance on chemicals in food growth and preparation as well as in construction, clothing manufacture, etc., has also spurred an exponential growth in the incidence of this disease, in many forms not previously seen.

Don’t misunderstand me; the purpose of my post is not to rail against our modern world and its conveniences. I am simply submitting an admittedly ignorant or possibly uninformed opinion. I would not for a minute choose to live in any other time. I have a team of dedicated professionals looking out for me and am receiving my chemotherapy at one of the top cancer treatment centers in North America.

In closing I feel grateful that I was not born into Jane Austen’s England, where the chance of even surviving childbirth was not much above fifty percent, and illness or disease was still looked upon in many cases as the punishment for sin. We know now that, while many diseases are a result of poor dietary or other choices, others are either hereditary or environmentally caused. It is a good time to be alive!

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Nancy Mayer
Nancy Mayer
March 25, 2022 7:26 PM

Fanny Burney Madame D’Arblay had a breast removed during the regency.She survived. The surgeons then tried to be as quick as possible, I have seen medical reports in which surgeons boast of their speed. Today we have various treatments but an operation is still one of the treatments. My friends who have had cancer treatments say that enduring being poisoned for weeks on end requires treatment on its own– a treatment for the treatment. Best wishes for a speedy recovery.

Cinnamon Worth
November 3, 2020 1:04 AM

I’m very sorry to hear of your recent health struggles. I hope you recover soon.

My husband spends a lot of time caring for cancer patients in the hospital. We’ve had several conversations on the topic you mention in your post. Many people think of cancer as a more modern illness, or they assume that it is more common now because of some shift in our society or our environment. In reality, the prevalence of cancer appears to be greater today than it was in the past because modern medicine has been so successful at keeping people alive long enough for cancer to develop into something that can turn deadly. I’ve heard several doctors indicate that if human males lived along enough, they would all eventually develop prostate cancer, but that type of cancer normally has such a slow progress that most men will either die before they develop it or will die of a different cause before the cancer turns fatal. I read an article years ago about the remains of an ancient human being discovered (like from 1200 BC). The bones showed the person had cancer, but it wasn’t the cause of death. In fact, scientists believed that the person probably died not knowing about the cancer at all since it was in the early stages and they died of some sort of accident. A few years later, they found human remains that were 1.7 million years old that show cancer was around even then. Anyway, I find it interesting how on a societal level, mankind will solve one set of problems and that act can sometimes allow other problems that were always there but had gone unnoticed to suddenly be seen. Often, the conclusion drawn in these circumstances is that humans are facing “new” problems which in one sense isn’t quite true.

November 2, 2020 12:00 AM

Hi Colin,
Wishing you good thoughts and full recovery. Take care and looking forward to your writing when you get back to it.

Elaine Jeremiah
October 24, 2020 10:32 AM

Hi Colin. So sorry to hear what you’re going through. I’ll pray for you. Thank you for such an interesting post. I’m with you on this one – while the Regency era definitely has its appeal in some aspects, in so many ways I’m glad to live in the twenty-first century. They knew so little about illness back then and as you mentioned, the ‘cure’ was often worse than the disease. Better to be alive now and have a much better chance of surviving these nasty diseases!

October 22, 2020 7:48 PM

Colin, I’m so sorry your are going through this trial. Praying for your complete healing!

October 21, 2020 1:40 PM

I’m sorry to hear that you are dealing with this. My husband is currently in remission and I am very thankful for the treatment that we have available to us.

Gianna Thomas
October 21, 2020 1:45 AM

My father was a general surgeon for forty-five years, and every now and then he would lose a patient to cancer when it was rampant through their body. It always hurt him to do so. Yes, treatments have come a long way, and Regency treatments were horrible. Hope you are and continue doing well and that the thinking ability returns when you have ended the chemo. And once gone, may the cancer never rear its ugly face again. Wishing you the best, Colin. 🙂

Robin G.
Robin G.
October 20, 2020 2:34 PM

Sending healing thoughts your way. I always shudder when a JAFF character is bled, let alone some of the other “treatments”. Thank you for the post.

Diana Oaks
October 20, 2020 12:27 PM

Your post brings to mind the sad case of Abigail (Nabby) Adams Smith, the eldest daughter of John and Abigail Adams here in the US, across the pond from Regency England, but in the same timeframe. She detected a lump in her breast that grew to the size of a dinner plate before she underwent a mastectomy in 1811. Accounts of the surgery are horrifying. Although they at first thought she was cured, malignancies returned and she died in 1813 at the age of 48. I first learned about her in a TV miniseries about John Adams’ life many years ago, and tracked down the details when a family member received a breast cancer diagnosis. Cancer is awful. I’m so sorry you are going through it, and I’m praying for your recovery.

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
October 20, 2020 11:00 AM

Like the others, I love reading about Regency but… I wouldn’t want to live there. I hope you didn’t hurt the dog when you tripped. Hubby sprained his ankle on his way to the bathroom. He’s still using a walker.

Colin, I am so sorry for your trials. I too wish you all the best and send up prayers for you and your family. I lost my mother in 2007. In 2019 I could see a big difference in cancer treatments protocols with my husband’s diagnosis. We were fortunate and after 7-months of chemo he is now in remission. I am so happy to live in this glorious day and age. I look forward to a time when there will be no more cancer. That doesn’t appear to be today. So, we continue research and the fight for a cure.

Blessings, stay safe, and healthy…

Riana Everly
October 20, 2020 9:21 AM

I’m sorry you are dealing with this. I understand completely. Chemo brain is real and it’s taken me a year to be able to write anything more complicated than a shopping list. As much as I love reading about the Regency and as much as I’d like to visit, I am also very pleased to be living now, with all that science has given us. I can only dream about what new discoveries are waiting.

At university I knew a lot of people involved with the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism). They’d spend their weekends being Medieval lords and ladies and jousting and feasting. Most saw it as fun. One or two really wanted to live that way. All I could think was, “Not without my coffee and my Advil and antibiotics!” This is similar. Give me modern science any day!

Also, if ever you want to chat with someone who has BTDT, I’m all ears. Are you at Foothills? That’s a great hospital.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
October 20, 2020 8:53 AM

Modern medicine has come a long way! My prayers are with you too. I lost my Dad twenty three years ago to colon cancer and it is a fight I wouldn’t wish on anyone! I hope you are able to beat it and get well! I can’t imagine surgery without anestetic! Ouch!

Regina Jeffers
October 20, 2020 7:07 AM

I am so sorry you must go through this, Colin. Like you, as much as I adore Regency tales, I am wise enough to realize some things are better now than then. My prayers remain with you.

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