The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

A Mother’s Conviction and A Little Girl’s Courage: Cancer Surgery in 1881

In honor of Cancer Awareness month, I would like to share with you the extraordinary story of young Mabel Cabot, who underwent cancer surgery in 1881. Mabel’s story is preserved thanks to the careful and detailed diary entries kept by Mabel’s mother, Elizabeth Rogers Mason Cabot. The diary entries document daily activities and events, providing this unique look at cancer care and treatment in the 19th century. 

On 13 October 1880, Mabel fell, and as described in the diary, she suffered a great deal. The fall caused an undetected tumor to move and created new and painful growth, leading to the realization that eight-year-old Mabel Cabot had Ovarian Cancer.

Extracts from the Diary of Elizabeth Rogers Mason Cabot pertaining to Mabel’s cancer:

13 October 1880

“Mabel fell in afternoon and brought in by Marianne suffering a great deal.”

15 October 1880

“…Mabel very sick. Lizzie and I took care of her.”

11 November 1880

“Miss Russell came as a nurse for Mabel.”

9 December 1880

“Mabel celebrated her first dinner downstairs by drinking champagne- looks as well as ever, but leg stiff – Out to drive.”

29 January 1881

“Dr. Sabine has decided that Mabel’s trouble, apparently unchanged for some time, has begun to increase and with it our anxiety.”

2 February 1881

“Consultation of Dr. Bigelow and Dr. Hodges. No hope.”

21 February 1881

“Went to see Dr. Tom Curtis. -Urged us to go abroad.”

22 February 1881

 “Dr. John Homans came to see Mabel. Considers it Sarcoma – a hopeless case.”

 30 March 1881

“Mabel awake a good deal in night tho’ not in pain. I sat up singing to her sometime. . . 

This morning the medicine I gave the children affected them well, but Mabel complains of tenderness whenever she moves. My heart sinks . . .

She feels pain in walking & moves slowly & carefully.”

[American doctors have declared Mabel’s cancer hopeless, so the family departs for London in an attempt to save her, although it is risky. They leave Brookline on 23 March and arrive in London on 4 April.]

5 April 1881

“Mabel felt badly about another examination, but recovered and was her own smiling little self. Dr. Thornton agrees to the probability of sarcoma but advises an examination with the needle.”

7 April 1881

“Wrote in afternoon and shivered with dread. Mr. C. took the children for an hours walk.- At 5, Mr. Spencer Wells, Sir James Paget, Mr. Thornton & Meredith arrived. Mabel agreed to see the latter without much discomfort and when I told her that I wanted her to smell something which I had taken, & would do her no harm, she put her little hand into mine, & never hesitated. Mr. M administered the Bicloid of Methylene which they use instead of Ether. I remained in the room. The needle seemed as if going thro’ soft bone. Mabel came out from the ether very quietly, with no nausea. Physicians decided that it was ovarian in character but also might be malignant but unanimously & decidedly advised an exploratory opening. Give no hope other wise for life longer than 6 months, and probably attended with much suffering.”

10 April 1881

At 8:30 Mr. Thornton arrived for a last talk. He considers it absolutely sure that this is a solid tumor. He came across substances with the needle that could not be pierced, He considers it equally sure that it will enlarge. If left to itself it causes death by disturbance of all the organs, a slow &very suffering death- the most so he thought of all deaths- if it is malignant, death may ensue at any moment by rupture, piercing, of the bowels or similar injury elsewhere. His diagnosis is that this is a dermoid ovarian tumor, ovarian from the position, as first observed by me, dermoid from its hardness (bone, hair, teeth etc being often found). He thinks the hall may have twisted it on its pedicle in such a way to stop the passage of blood, and so arrested the growth. The renewed growth would come from new attachments. These are at fist very delicate and removable by the finger, afterwards become more tough and must be parted with scissors and tied – later are much harder. He proposes making a small opening in the flesh outside the tumor sufficient to insert the finger and lay bare the surface of the tumor. If he discovers the tumor, (and he expects to be able to ascertain) to be malignant, the wound is easily healed and becomes as sound as before with no painful consequences. If he finds no proof of its being malignant he will make a large opening, sufficient to insert the hand, and ascertain if the attachments are such as can be dealt with with any hope of success. This involves more risk, but the tumor will not be pierced except by accident, and that will probably heal well. If. However, the attachments would give any ground for hope of a successful removal, he would complete the operation at once. Danger would then be from death at the time from the great shock to the system, or from bleeding. If she lived through the operation, there would be a good chance for recovery, and she might be well in three weeks.  -Mr. C. & I both said that we wished the operation proceeded with, if there was any hope of success, we should rather she died in the operation, rather than to recover and die by inches. He told us of a nurse and lodgings and we talked over further arrangements. Did not leave until after ten, & refused a fee. Very gentlemanly and very sympathetic.”

14 April 1881

“Rain. This made it easy to keep Mabel contented in not going out. Had her breakfast, of fish and bread and butter, and milk at 8, and at 11 some beef tea and toast. Dressed her etc., and took her after her lunch into the dining room downstairs. Walter had been out early and bought a bag for Elliot and some breastpins for the women. She busied herself writing the names and hers on all the boxes. Miss Matthews hard at work arranging the room upstairs, the curtains, the beds, the fire, the table and carpets etc.

Sent Rose out for a knit jacket. Got home just in time to send her and Mlle. and Walter off in a brougham at 25 minutes after one, as Mr. Thornton arrived, he in his shirtsleeves with carbolic acid, boiling water etc., etc.

At two Meredith arrived. I told her he wanted to see her upstairs, and without hesitation or objection went up with me into the back room and as undressed. Put her on the bed. When she saw him come in with the bottle and tube for giving the methylene hung round his neck, she looked a little wistful, but said nothing and put her hand in mine. In a few moments she was unconscious, and he took her up and carried her to the other room and put her on the table. There were Sir James Paget, Mr. Spencer Wells, Mr. Thornton, Mr. Meredith, an assistant, and the nurse. I came downstairs at ten minutes after two. At twenty minutes of three Sir James P. came down to say that a large dermoid ovarian tumor had been perfectly and beautifully removed with very slight loss of blood, nothing malignant, nothing extraordinarily difficult. I don’t know what I felt, for when I heard his descending steps so soon, all my worst fears I suppose realized, and that he had come to say nothing could be done. He was wonderfully kind. Sir James Paget and Mr. Wells drove off with their carriages and pairs at 4, the whole being completed. They said they thought the chances were ten to one in her favor.”

You will be relieved to know, as I was, that Mabel does indeed survive, and goes on to live a full life. In fact, in 1904 Mabel Cabot marries Ellery Sedgwick, the future Editor of the Atlantic Monthly. Mabel Cabot Sedgwick wrote The Garden Month by Month in 1907, a revered guide to garden plants. At their Long Hill Estate in Beverly MA, Mabel began planning Gardens in 1916; Preserved by the Trustees, those same gardens, The Gardens at Long Hill, can still be seen today:

Elizabeth Rogers Mason Cabot was a woman of great conviction, and thankfully for future generations, a fabulous diarist. She documented much of her amazing life, starting when she was only nine years old. Her most captivating and detailed diary entries are from her youth and newlywed years, full of vibrant and extensive detail. Her thoughts on the Role of Women in society and in the home are intriguing, inspiring and insightful. The diaries to which Elizabeth turned to keep her most intimate thoughts, greatest sorrows, fears and speculations, are an incredible look into the lives and times of nineteenth century Bostonians. Elizabeth was born into wealth, and married into wealth, so her daily life is a testament to the lifestyle of the Boston ‘Brahmins’. Elizabeth’s diaries are part of the Rogers-Mason-Cabot Papers held at the MHS. 

The entirety of Elizabeth’s diaries are fascinating and intriguing, and I encourage you to read them fully, as I am only sharing this one part of Elizabeth’s life. The diary is full of descriptions of Concerts, the theatre, friends coming to call, vacations in Newport and New Hampshire, and luxurious shopping excursions… and then the entries when Elizabeth realizes that her young daughter has cancer. I was so touched by these diary entries that I found myself on the verge of tears while consulting them in the Reading Room. Dear little Mabel and her mother heroically fought cancer together in 1881, and against all odds, they won!

Many of Elizabeth Rogers Mason Cabot’s dairy entries can be found transcribed in More than Common Powers of Perception : the Diary of Elizabeth Rogers Mason Cabot edited by P.A.M. Taylor(Boston : Beacon Press, c1991).

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 10 October, 2018, 1:00 AM