The Magic of Painless Surgery & Dentistry

n 1812, the English novelist Frances Burney described her mounting terror as she prepared to undergo a mastectomy without any anesthetic. Having two hours to wait until the dreaded event (her 'execution', as she put it), she wandered into the room where the operation was going to take place and 'recoiled'. In an effort to control her fear she 'walked backwards & forwards till I quieted all emotion, & became, by degrees, nearly stupid – torpid, without sentiment or consciousness'.

When seven men arrived, all dressed in black, Burney 'began to tremble violently, more with distaste & horrour of the preparations even than of the pain'. When told to mount the bed, she stood 'suspended, for a moment, [contemplating] whether I should not abruptly escape – I looked at the door, the windows – I felt desperate'.

Submission, however, was necessary. The surgeon spread a cambric handkerchief over her face and took up the knife. Burney was consumed by a 'terror that surpasses all description'. When 'the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast – cutting through veins – arteries – flesh – nerves', she wrote: 'I needed no injunctions not to restrain my cries. I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incident – & I almost marvel that it rings not in my Ears still! so excruciating was the agony.'

With the invention of chloroform in the 1840s, doctors celebrated the fact that the 'groans and shrieks of sufferers beneath the surgeons' knives and saws, were all hushed'. So said the surgeon-dentist Walter Blundell.