J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Cancer Case from 1799

On 2 Aug 1802, the Connecticut Courant newspaper ran this article by Capt. Samuel Hall, then sixty-seven years old and living in East Haddam. He described Dr. John Pope, born in Boston in 1769 to John and Hannah Pope, a Quaker couple who had both listed themselves in town directories as “cancer doctors.”

About the year 1789, when living in Plainfield, in the state of Connecticut, I discovered a small spot on the calf of one of my legs, from which I soon began to experience considerable inconvenience. This spot gradually and regularly increased, till a malignant tumour formed under it, and the surface became covered with a dry scab.

The sore now became virulent and troublesome, and I applied for medical assistance. The best advice that could be obtained in that vicinity was improved; but without any beneficial effect. Eminent practitioners were procured from some distance from my residence: They pronounced the disorder a cancer; and applied every method of cure within their knowledge, yet all their exertions were vain, every mode of treatment proved ineffectual, and every experiment failed. My disorder increased to an alarming degree, baffling all medical skill, and my case becoming desperate, my physician totally gave me over and declared that I must die.

I then resigned all expectation of being restored, settled my earthly affairs, and gave myself up for a speedy dissolution. While I lay principally confined to my bed in hopeless anguish, suffering in my imagination the approaches of death, I was informed of Doct. John Pope of Providence, who it was said was eminently skilled in the cure of cancers. I was advised by my friends, one in particular (Mr. Smith, who had experienced the cure of the same disorder) to make immediate application to Doct. Pope for assistance. . . .

I accordingly applied to him on the 14th of June, 1799. The Doctor examined my complaint, but gave me small encouragement of relieving me. He considered the cancer as having advanced to such a state of inveteracy, and so radically fixed in my constitution, as to have become very doubtful of cure; and it was with reluctance that he attempted the cure at all.

The tumour had now become so enormously increased as to be full as big as a four pound shot [i.e., cannonball], the surface entirely ulcerated, and was declared by every one to be a perfect rose cancer. My ancle, leg, knee and thigh were so much swollen as to be almost twice their natural size; and below my knee nearly all the way of a bigness. My leg was of a dark purple, very angry, and covered with watry blisters and scabs, which extended above my knee. My appetite was lost, my body emaciated, and my constitution so much impaired, that when I arrived at Providence, it was with extreme difficulty that I could support myself on my feet.

I was in this situation when Doct. Pope undertook the cure. By his attention and skill, I was, to the astonishment of every one, in about four months entirely cured of the cancer, and restored to my natural health. The tumour and the virulence of the cancer became totally dispelled, and my blood so entirely purged of all cancerous humors, that I have since enjoyed my health in as great perfection as at any time previous to the first appearance of the cancer.

I consider not only the health, but the life which I now enjoy, under God to be wholly owing to the skill and attention of Doctor Pope. To his care I shall therefore recommend all persons who are in danger of the fate, from which I have been thus surprizingly rescued.
Unfortunately, Hall didn’t describe Dr. Pope’s treatment—probably because the doctor wanted to keep those methods proprietary.

In Medical Common Sense (1868), Dr. Edward B. Foote wrote:
a rose cancer...looks at first very like a rose-bud, and, as it enlarges, opens and expands like a rose. This generally attacks the womb, vagina, and nose, but may locate in any other part of the system. It is very painful, and sometimes grows to an immense size.
These days, we don’t have to wait for cancers to appear outside the body, but try to catch and treat them at the cellular level. As a result, the medical terminology has changed, and cancers are identified by the types of cells they grow from, not by their outer appearance.

Capt. Samuel Hall, formerly of Plainfield, lived another decade and died at age seventy-eight in Brutus, New York, according to the 5 July 1813 Connecticut Mirror.

TOMORROW: A traditional physician responds to a cancer doctor.

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