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Bathsheba's Breast

Women, Cancer, and History

"Breast cancer may very well be history's oldest malaise, known as well to the ancients as it is to us. The women who have endured it share a unique sisterhood. Queen Atossa and Dr. Jerri Nielsen—separated by era and geography, by culture, religion, politics, economics, and world view—could hardly have been more different. Born 2,500 years apart, they stand as opposite bookends on the shelf of human history. One was the most powerful woman in the ancient world, the daughter of an emperor, the mother of a god; the other is a twenty-first-century physician with a streak of adventure coursing through her veins. From the imperial throne in ancient Babylon, Atossa could not have imagined the modern world, and only in the driest pages of classical literature could Antarctica-based Jerri Nielsen even have begun to fathom the Near East five centuries before the birth of Christ. For all their differences, however, they shared a common fear that transcends time and space."—from Bathsheba's Breast

In 1967, an Italian surgeon touring Amsterdam's Rijks museum stopped in front of Rembrandt's Bathsheba at Her Bath, on loan from the Louvre, and noticed an asymmetry to Bathsheba's left breast; it seemed distended, swollen near the armpit, discolored, and marked with a distinctive pitting. With a little research, the physician learned that Rembrandt's model, his mistress Hendrickje Stoffels, later died after a long illness, and he conjectured in a celebrated article for an Italian medical journal that the cause of her death was almost certainly breast cancer.

A horror known to every culture in every age, breast cancer has been responsible for the deaths of 25 million women throughout history. An Egyptian physician writing 3,500 years ago concluded that there was no treatment for the disease. Later surgeons recommended excising the tumor or, in extreme cases, the entire breast. This was the treatment advocated by the court physician to sixth-century Byzantine empress Theodora, the wife of Justinian, though she chose to die in pain rather than lose her breast. Only in the past few decades has treatment advanced beyond disfiguring surgery.

In Bathsheba's Breast, historian James S. Olson—who lost his left hand and forearm to cancer while writing this book—provides an absorbing and often frightening narrative history of breast cancer told through the heroic stories of women who have confronted the disease, from Theodora to Anne of Austria, Louis XIV's mother, who confronted "nun's disease" by perfecting the art of dying well, to Dr. Jerri Nielson, who was dramatically evacuated from the South Pole in 1999 after performing a biopsy on her own breast and self-administering chemotherapy. Olson explores every facet of the disease: medicine's evolving understanding of its pathology and treatment options; its cultural significance; the political and economic logic that has dictated the terms of a war on a "woman's disease"; and the rise of patient activism. Olson concludes that, although it has not yet been conquered, breast cancer is no longer the story of individual women struggling alone against a mysterious and deadly foe.

About the Author

James S. Olson is Distinguished Professor and Chair of the history department at Sam Houston State University. He is co-author (with Randy Roberts) of both Winning Is the Only Thing: Sports in America since 1945, available from Johns Hopkins, and John Wayne: American.


"A well-written, accessible account of the history of breast cancer from ancient times to today . . . Olson simultaneously presents a history of breast cancer, culture, and science. His multi-layered analysis of the history of breast cancer is most striking when he demonstrates the differing attitudes toward therapy that American and European medical practitioners hold; and how the development of medicine in different areas of the globe affects the way breast cancer is treated . . . Overall, Olson's book is a satisfying examination of the history of breast cancer. It would be a welcome addition to a course dedicated to the history of medicine, the history of women in medicine, or gender history."—Karol K. Weaver, H-Women, H-Net Reviews

"An engaging historical survey of the interplay between the science of breast cancer and the wider culture of which it is a part."—Richard Horton, Times Literary Supplement

"An engrossing history . . . This book is definitely a thought-provoking read and reminds us that some diseases and their physical and emotional trauma transcend time."—Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, Family Tree Magazine

"An invaluable aid to those breast cancer survivors with an interest in taking the long view of their illness . . . Today's cancer research offers plenty of hope to all those courageous people on the journey initiated by their diagnosis, and Bathsheba's Breast is an important traveling companion whose most promising chapters have yet to be written."—Nick Owchar, Los Angeles Times

"Historian James S. Olson provides us with an extremely interesting and often terrifying history of breast cancer through the ages . . . An excellent, moving and informative read."—CancerFutures

"In elegant, captivating prose, Bathsheba's Breast brings to life dramatic tales to illustrate the history of breast cancer treatment . . . The historical detail and absorbing storytelling appeal equally to scholarly and general audiences."—Paula Viterbo, History: Reviews of New Books

"James Olson's compelling book suggests that breast cancer is one of history's oldest diseases. From Queen Atossa of Persia, daughter of Cyrus, consort of Darius, mother of Xerxes, to Dr. Jerri Nielsen, isolated from medical help in Antarctica, who self-diagnosed and self-treated her cancer, he tells stories of the sufferers, their doctors and their treatments . . . It is impossible to read this book without being moved—by pity, horror, awe and respect at the suffering of ordinary women whose normal lives were cut short by abnormal malignancy; by anger at the longevity of some of the barbaric treatments and the dismissive arrogance of mutilating surgeons; but finally by hope that molecular biology, genetic counselling, and pharmaceutical innovation will produce if not a cure, then techniques to transform the disease from an acute killer into a treatable, chronic malaise."—Tilli Tansey, History Today

"James S. Olson has taken on the task of recounting the entire history of breast cancer—from Queen Atossa, who lived in Babylon in 490 B.C., to Dr. Jerri Nielsen, who was trapped in Antarctica in 1999—and has done it in a concise, attractive, enjoyable book."—Susan Lester, New England Journal of Medicine

"Provides a fascinating view of the ways in which culture, politics, and science interact . . . A lucid account of an ongoing war on a changing battlefield with at least the hope of new weapons."—Kirkus Reviews

"Provides a most readable survey contrasting past and present options for breast cancer treatment."—Library Bookwatch

"Utilizing accounts of the experiences of well-known historical figures from Anne of Austria to Linda McCartney, the author weaves a story important to every woman who fears breast cancer and to all those who care about her. An excellent, thought-provoking reference for lay audiences as well as health care professionals."—Choice

"In sum, Bathsheba's Breast does an admirable job of summarizing the history of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment."—Barron H. Lerner, Bulletin of the History of Medicine

"Olsen embarks on the complicated, current history of the multiple choices for the treatment of breast cancer since 1970 . . . the inclusion of individual stories makes the debates very real and the outcomes not always positive."—Mary Tarbox, EdD, RN, Nursing History Review

"Olson . . . has written a book that is part history, packed with fascinating details about important figures from ancient times to the present, and part history of medicine . . . beyond all that, the author—who lost an arm to a recurring cancer and last year was diagnosed with brain cancer—bares his own humility."—Marina Pisano, San Antonio Express-News

"Honesty and empathy make the book worthwhile for lay and professional readers alike."—Jessica B. Mandell, Journal of Clinical Investigation

"[Olson's] honesty and empathy make the book worthwhile for lay and professional readers alike."—Journal of Clinical Investigation

The Johns Hopkins University Press

9780801869365 : bathshebas-breast-olson
320 Pages
$34.00 USD
9780801880643 : bathshebas-breast-olson
Paperback / softback
320 Pages
$21.95 USD

Other Titles by James S. Olson

Making Cancer History

James S. Olson
Aug 2011 - The Johns Hopkins University Press
$40.00 USD - Hardback
$40.00 USD - Electronic book text

Winning is the Only Thing

Randy Roberts and James S. Olson
Apr 1991 - Johns Hopkins University Press
$26.95 USD - Paperback / softback

Other Titles in

The Breast Cancer Book

Kenneth D. Miller, MD, and Melissa Camp, MD, MPH - with Kathy Steligo
Sep 2021 - Johns Hopkins University Press
$59.95 USD - Hardback
$24.95 USD - Paperback / softback
$24.95 USD - Electronic book text

Choices in Breast Cancer Treatment

edited by Kenneth D. Miller, M.D.
Jan 2008 - Johns Hopkins University Press
$50.00 USD - Hardback
$21.95 USD - Paperback / softback

Other Titles in History of medicine

Getting Under Our Skin

Lisa T. Sarasohn
Sep 2021 - Johns Hopkins University Press
$30.00 USD - Hardback
$30.00 USD - Electronic book text


Allan V. Horwitz
Aug 2021 - Johns Hopkins University Press
$35.00 USD - Hardback
$35.00 USD - Electronic book text

Bodies in Doubt, second edition

Elizabeth Reis
Jul 2021 - Johns Hopkins University Press
$30.00 USD - Paperback / softback
$30.00 USD - Electronic book text