Barron H. Lerner: The Annals of Extreme Surgery

Roundup: Historians' Take

Barron H. Lerner, a professor of medicine and public health at Columbia, is the author of “The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America” and the forthcoming “One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900.”

...Aggressive cancer therapy started in the late 19th century with the radical mastectomy, which involved the removal of the breast, along with the chest muscle below it and nearby lymph nodes, and was championed by William S. Halsted, a surgeon at Johns Hopkins.

In the following decades, Dr. Halsted’s methods became more and more popular, particularly after World War II, when surgeons who had performed heroic operations on European battlefields returned to America optimistic about what could be achieved in cancer surgery. In an attempt to eradicate all potentially dangerous cells without the assistance of chemotherapy — which was not yet in wide use — surgeons began removing even parts of the sternum and rib cage of certain breast cancer patients in something called a super-radical mastectomy.

If the cancer had spread into the arms, surgeons at times removed entire shoulders (forequarter amputations). If the cancer was in the legs, part of the pelvis was removed with the leg (hindquarter amputations). The most aggressive operation of all was probably the pelvic exenteration, devised by the New York gynecologist Alexander Brunschwig. For cancers that had spread throughout a woman’s pelvis, he removed not only her gynecological organs but also her bladder and rectum....

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