Women Under the Knife: A History of Surgery

Written by Ann Dally
Category: · History

The story of how modern surgery developed through experiments on women…

In 1811 Fanny Burney, then Madame d’Arblay, wrote a harrowing journal about an operation she had endured for breast cancer.

These were the days before anaesthetics, and many people preferred to suffer their pain — whatever the consequences — rather than to submit to the terrifying hands of the surgeons.

And many surgeons dared not do what they knew in theory would relieve the suffering of their patients.

Because operations on ovaries were the major development of internal surgery in the nineteenth century, it was women who bore the brunt of surgical experimentation and who also reaped its rewards.

Their need was great, but so was their compliance.

From the first operation in America in 1809, the saving of much suffering was achieved at the expense of prolonged surgery endured by both black slaves and prosperous whites.

Later in the Victorian era there was even a craze for mutilating operations such as ‘spaying’ and clitoridectomies to ‘cure’ hysteria and masturbation, as well as questionable interventionalist surgery in pregnancy and childbirth which continues to this day.

The story continues with the obstacles faced by the earliest women doctors, such as Elizabeth Blackwell and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

Women Under the Knife is an extraordinary history, giving a vivid picture — literary, medical and sociological — of Victorian society in America and Europe.

Praise for Women Under the Knife

‘It is an exceptionally enjoyable read — very fluently written, and executed with a command and a sweep and a confidence that makes many academic books seem rather slow, footling and uncertain of themselves’ – Roy Porter

Praise for Ann Dally

‘Thorough and engaging’ – Kirkus Reviews

…’introduces a levelheaded view’ – Kirkus Reviews

‘refreshingly evenhanded’ – Kirkus Reviews

Dr Ann Dally (1929-2007) was a pioneering English author and psychiatrist. She was born in London, the daughter of a distinguished lawyer and a half-American mother. She studied history, before qualifying in medicine and then in psychiatry, whilst going on to marry and have six children. Ann Dally wrote eleven books in all, including A-Z of Babies, The Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Medicine, A Child is Born, Mothers: Their Power and Influence and The Morbid Streak.

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