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In 1811, English novelist Fanny Burney underwent a mastectomy without so much as a shot of whiskey to dim the pain. In letters she wrote to her sister after the operation, she recalls, “I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly [sic] during the whole time of the incision — and I almost marvel that it rings not in my ears still! So excruciating was the agony.” In fact, Burney fainted twice from the pain of the incision, which likely came as a welcome relief. 

Her operation took place during a time when surgical anesthesia was still in its infancy, and the limited options that existed could be unreliable and often dangerous. Historical anecdotes like hers reveal “what a disgusting thing surgery was before anesthesia,” said Tony Wildsmith, professor emeritus of anesthesia at the University of Dundee in Scotland, and former Royal Archivist at the Royal College of Anaesthetists in the United Kingdom. 

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