Cancer Treatment in the 19th Century

Although cancer was known to the ancients – the oldest known description of the disease is in an Egyptian papyrus from around 1600 B.C. – cancer treatment in the 19th century had not advanced much beyond the methods used during the time of Hippocrates (circa 460-370 BC). These consisted of diet, bloodletting and laxatives. Surgery was also used to treat cancer, but since general anaesthesia was not available until the 1840s, and antiseptics were not broadly introduced until the 1860s, operations were extremely painful and had a poor prognosis. Like today, unusual cures for cancer were often proclaimed, each with their advocates and testimonials.

Cancer Treatment in the 19th Century: A surgical operation to remove a malignant tumour from a man's left breast and armpit in a Dublin drawing room, 1817. Source: Wellcome Images

A surgical operation to remove a malignant tumour from a man’s left breast and armpit in a Dublin drawing room, 1817. Source: Wellcome Images

Dock root

Yellow dock is a herb traditionally used as a medicine by Native Americans. Its root is recommended by herbalists as a general health tonic, as a remedy for mild anemia and various skin conditions, and as a laxative. In the early 1800s, dock root was one of many plant-based concoctions claimed to be successful in treating cancer.

Take the narrow-leafed dock root and boil it in water till it be quite soft, then bathe the part affected in the decoction as hot as can be borne, three or four times a day; the root must then be mashed and applied as a poultice.

This root has proved an effectual cure in many instances; it was first introduced by an Indian woman who came to the house of a person in the country who was much afflicted with a cancer in her mouth…. The Indian went out and soon returned with a root, which she boiled and applied as above, and in a short time a cure was effected….

Daniel Brown’s father having had a cancer in his head, had it cut out and apparently healed; but some of the roots remaining, it again broke out; his doctor then informed him that nothing more could be done, except burning it out with hot irons, this being too harsh a remedy to submit to, he was much discouraged. The dock root was soon after recommended and it cured him in a short time. (1)

Turkish figs

Figs were another recommended cancer treatment, both (one assumes) because of their laxative effect, and because a fig poultice was thought to have healing properties – something that is mentioned in the Bible (Isaiah 38:21).

The following recipe for the cure of cancer is recommended upon very respectable authority, as an easy, cheap, and simple remedy. Boil the finest Turkey figs in new milk, which they will thicken by being boiled in it. When they are tender, split and apply them as warm as they can be borne to the part affected, whether it be broken or whole, and the part must be washed every time the poultice is changed with some of the milk. Remember always to use a fresh poultice night and morning, and at least once more in the day. And drink a quart or a pint of the milk that the figs are boiled in, twice in the twenty-four hours, if the stomach will bear it. This course must be steadily observed for three or four months at least. The cure of the old man who died at the age of one hundred and five was effected with about six pounds of figs only. The cancer, which began at a corner of his mouth, had eaten through his jaw, cheek and halfway down his throat; yet was so perfectly cured as never to show any tendency to return. But on any such appearance, the figs should be again applied. (2)

Dough and hog’s lard

Monsieur Ruelle published in the papers a receipt of a far less painful and more speedy cure of cancer in three days and without surgical operation. ‘This remedy,’ says he, ‘consists simply in a piece of dough, about the size of a small hen’s egg, and a lump of hog’s lard, the older the better, of the same dimensions. These substances thoroughly mixed, so as to form a kind of salve, must be spread on a piece of white leather and applied to the diseased part.’ In confirmation of the efficacy of this remedy, M. Ruelle cites Mademoiselle Chaumero, mother to the bookseller of that name, in the Palais Royal, who was about to under the usual operation [of excision], when a woman who had been cured by his application informed her of it. She joyfully availed herself of this remedy, and, as the Journal de Paris asserts, was completely cured in the space of three days. (3)

Lead and brimstone

Although poisonous, lead was used as a medicine for some 2000 years. Combined with brimstone (sulphur) and injected into the tumour, it was touted as a cancer treatment in the 19th century.

Melt as much lead as would make a large rifle bullet, and while boiling over the fire stir brimstone in it until it becomes a fine flour, and the lead disappears; then scarify the top of the cancer, so that the powder, thus formed by the lead and brimstone, can get at the roots of the cancer; then cover it with a linen rag, and keep it dry, apply it once or twice a day, as occasion may require, until the cancer is cured.

With the above remedy I have cured many persons, and have never failed in a single instance, and have full confidence in recommending it to my fellow-citizens, throughout the union. Editors of papers, friendly to the cause of humanity, will give this an insertion in their respective journals. (4)

The red-hot iron

Napoleon’s famous battlefield surgeon, Dominique Jean Larrey, also applied his skill to the treatment of cancer. One suspects the following operation was more painful than reported (see Frances Burney’s account of her mastectomy conducted by Larrey).

Mr. Larrey, the celebrated French surgeon, has recently performed an extraordinary cure of a cancer in the lower jaw of a girl of 12 years of age, which occupied nearly the whole extent of the right lateral part of the bone. Such a case had been long regarded as absolutely beyond the reach of the surgical art. Amputation has been tried in such cases, and failed. Mr. Larrey, after making an excision of the fungous portion of the bone, had recourse to fire, which he has employed with good effect in very many desperate cases. It was the actual cautery which he used, and which was attended with complete success; affording every reason to hope that it may be repeated in similar cases with similar effect. The young patient was obliged to undergo the application of the red-hot iron 40 or 50 times; but these applications were far less painful that might be at first imagined. The child came on foot, accompanied by her mother, to Mr. Larrey’s house, and commonly returned in the same manner. She uttered not a single cry during the operation, and confessed that she suffered very little from it. She is now perfectly cured. (5)


Mesmerism, also known as animal magnetism, was a popular 19th century therapy that involved the rebalancing within the body of an invisible force or fluid that was said to permeate the universe. Mesmerism combined aspects of hypnotism and healing touch.

The case of cure of a true cancer of the female breast with mesmerism…is one of the most important papers ever published in the annals of medical science, demonstrating as it does that the curative powers of mesmerism exceed those of any other therapeutic agent with which mankind has as yet become acquainted. ‘The disease cured was,’ says Dr. Elliotson, ‘malignant and structural, and such as the art of medicine has never been known to cure, nor the powers of nature to shake off.’ The patient, Miss Barber, is a dress-maker…. She first applied to Dr. Elliotson on the 6th of March, 1843, and at that time was labouring under decided cancer in a state of schirrus. Dr. Elliotson proposed mesmerism to her, with a view of rendering her insensible to the pain of the surgical operation for the removal of the part, and accordingly she placed herself under his care. … [Dr. Elliotson] took her in hand himself, and produced a state of sleep-waking, and by the constant, and assiduous, and scientific application of mesmerism, for upwards of five years, succeeded in dissipating painlessly and imperceptibly, but perfectly and completely, the diseased mass, thus for the first time, in the history of the medical profession, curing cancer. (6)


By the 1870s, electricity was being applied to tumours.

A New York paper gives an account of the removal of a large erectile tumor from the neck of General Kilpatrick by means of electricity…. ‘The General having been placed completely under the influence of ether, four large darning needles were inserted in the tumor, which was almost perfectly solid, and the full force of a powerful electric battery was applied. In thirty minutes the swelling began to disappear, and in two hours, during which the General was perfectly unconscious, it was entirely removed. The operation was completely prostrating, but perfectly satisfactory to the General and his friends; and the surgeons have no doubt of his speedy recovery. The electricity thrown into Gen. Kilpatrick’s system during the time the battery was applied was sufficient to burn a piece of coal the size of a marble.’…

Last February we published an account of the cure of a cancer by the use of electricity, by Dr. Rae, now in Empire. The circumstances were related to us by the patient, Judge T.T. Davis, of Syracuse, New York. After having the cancer removed three times by the knife without permanent cure, Mr. Davis applied to a Russian electrician in New York. This electrician thrust several needles into the cancer, and applied the electrodes of a galvanic battery. Under this treatment the cancer disappeared, but as the operation was a painful one, he desisted a while and returned home. He then met Dr. Rae, who at once applied electricity in a new way. He constructed electrodes, we believe from coins, attached to the poles of the battery, wrapped these in moist clothes, and applied to parts of the body in such a manner that the electrical current must pass through the cancer. A daily application for several days resulted in dispersing the cancer across the center thus cutting it in two. The electrodes [were] then applied differently so as to cause the currents to pass through the tumor in different directions until it had entirely disappeared. It for some time continued to reappear on different parts of his body, but when any enlargement of muscle appeared electricity was immediately applied, until all indications of cancer disappeared. (7)

How many patients were cured?

Despite reports of individual recoveries or remissions, most cancer patients did not fare well. In 1854, the Cancer Hospital in London reported that

out of 650 cases to the end of last year, something like 90 of the out-patients have had their disease arrested or relieved; and of the in-patients about 56. It also appears that but a few cases have been successfully operated on. (8)

This did not stop people from getting rich peddling cures. In 1885, an American paper complained.

The discovery of ‘cancer-cures’ began in the last century and has been pursued with unremitting industry to the present day. Pretenders to the possession of a specific can even now get wealthy by liberally advertising in religious weeklies; but fifty and 100 years ago they got fame and honor also. The cancer-curers have been the most numerous of all quacks. …

In the history of cancer therapeutics for the present century we find a long and curious list of drugs and other measures that have been put forward as specifics. Sarsaparilla, foucus helmin thocorton, juice of mancenillier, thuya occidentalis (arbor vitae), smilax, ergotin, tar, house-leek, pipsissewa, cundurango, Chian turpentine are among the vegetable remedies recommended for internal and external use. Arsenic, aluminium, iodine, the bromides, sulphur, iron, corrosive sublimate; acetic, citric and carbolic acids; choral chromic acid, the zinc salts and caustic potash have all had their virtues extolled. …

Despite all, we are no nearer curing cancer than we were 100 years ago. We can postpone death, relieve suffering, and make life more tolerable. In a small percent of cases the use of the knife removes the disease permanently; and to the knife belongs, so far, the chief triumph in the therapeutics of carcinoma. …

The best hopes for the future lie in discovering the causes of the development of the dread disease, and in preventing its appearance. Meanwhile cancer quacks will thrive, because man wants to live, because hope will not die and because the diagnosis of cancerine from other tumors is not always easy. Most cases of ulcerating ‘cancers’ cured by quacks have been cases of syphilis, while the other ‘cures’ are cases of non-malignant tumor. (9)

Napoleon’s cancer treatment

Napoleon Bonaparte died of stomach cancer on May 5, 1821, at the age of 51. (10) During the last four months of his life, Napoleon’s symptoms were treated with enemas, hot baths, valerian, iron, quinine, orange flower water, bloodletting, Cheltenham salts, licorice water, emetics, soup and semolina, hot towels, purgatives, barley water, tincture of opium and ether, jelly and warm wine, sulphate of magnesia, gentian, subcarbonate of potash, ether, calomel, and stomach plasters. Napoleon was not subjected to surgery or more exotic treatments, in large part because his physician, Dr. François Carlo Antommarchi, did not accurately diagnose his patient’s illness. Antommarchi thought Napoleon was suffering from chronic hepatitis. British Army surgeon Dr. Archibald Arnott did not make a correct diagnosis either.

Which raises the question

So how could Napoleon survive his fictional rescue from St. Helena and live beyond May 1821 in Napoleon in America, given that he was dying of cancer at the time? While I do not subscribe to the theory that Napoleon died of arsenic poisoning (see footnote 10 below), I took advantage of it when writing the novel by assuming that if Napoleon had been spared the final doses, he might have recovered. Such are the joys of fiction.

You might also enjoy:

Drinking Cold Water & Other 19th-Century Causes of Death

Remarkable Cases of Longevity in the 19th Century

Exercise for Women in the Early 19th Century

Blood Transfusion History: Infusing Life

Medical Advice for Travellers to Mexico in the Early 19th Century

What happened to Napoleon’s body?

How were Napoleonic battlefields cleaned up?

  1. “A Safe and Efficacious Remedy for the Cancer,” Maryland Gazette (Annapolis, MD), Feb. 5, 1801.
  2. “Cure for the Cancer,” The Lancaster Gazette, and General Advertiser (Lancaster, UK), Dec. 28, 1811.
  3. “Cure for the Cancer (From the Liverpool Courier),” Maryland Gazette and Political Intelligencer (Annapolis, MD), Aug. 24, 1815.
  4. Daniel Dillon, “Cure for a Cancer (From the Ohio Galaxy),” Maryland Gazette and Political Intelligencer, Aug. 1, 1822.
  5. “Cure of Cancer,” Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (London, UK), Issue 238, Sept. 17, 1826, p. 293.
  6. “Cancer Cured by Mesmerism,” Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette (Exeter, UK), Oct. 21, 1848.
  7. Daily Central City Register (Central City, CO), Oct. 18, 1870.
  8. “Hospital for Cancer,” Cambridge Independent Press (Cambridge, UK), June 24, 1854.
  9. “Cancer-Cure and Cancer-Curers (From the Medical Record),” Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco, CA), May 9, 1885.
  10. The claim that Napoleon was killed by arsenic poisoning has been convincingly refuted in a number of scientific studies. See, for example, William J. Broad in the New York Times and Ted Chamberlain on the National Geographic website. For more about Napoleon’s stomach cancer, see UT Southwestern Medical Center, “Napoleon’s Mysterious Death Unmasked,” Science Daily, 16 January 2007, and Alessandro Lugli et al., “Napoleon Bonaparte’s gastric cancer: a clinicopathologic approach to staging, pathogenesis, and etiology,” Nature Clinical Practice Gastroenterology & Hepatology, Vol. 4 (2007), pp. 52-57. See also J. Thomas Hindmarsh and John Savory, “The Death of Napoleon, Cancer or Arsenic?” Clinical Chemistry, Vol. 54, No. 12 (December 2008), pp. 2092-2093. For a study of Napoleon’s case presented as a modern clinicopathologic conference, see Robert E. Gosselin, “Exhuming Bonaparte,” Dartmouth Medicine, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Spring 2003), pp. 38-47, 61.

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Cancer quacks will thrive, because man wants to live, because hope will not die and because the diagnosis of cancerine from other tumors is not always easy.

Daily Evening Bulletin