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Press Release


Emily Darrow
ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y.-Author and historian Maarten Ultee will speak at Bard College on Thursday, September 23, at 8:00 p.m. His topic is "The Terrible History and Paradox of Breast Cancer Surgery." The lecture, free and open to the public, will be held in the Olin Language Center Room 120.

Medical practitioners have long questioned whether any surgical treatment for breast cancer is effective or merely aggravates an incurable disease. Despite warnings of the futility of their efforts, surgeons have made judgments about therapies and performed operations even when they saw no demonstrable survival advantage. Why did surgeons operate for breast cancer? Why did they try to treat a disease regarded as incurable? Who made the decisions to operate, and on what basis? How did they justify the practice of breast cancer surgery? These are some of the issues that Maarten Ultee will address from a historical perspective in his lecture.

A study of breast cancer surgery in early modern Europe (1500-1850) suggests that surgical practice was largely self justifying and strongly driven by patient demand. Women with breast cancer specifically sought surgical treatment, usually too late. Operations were long and painful because the prevailing view was that only complete excision of the tumor offered any hope for a cure. Writers such as Johannes Scultetus and Lorenz Heister believed removing cancers was possible, although these surgical outcomes were often unfavorable. Claude Nicolas Le Cat and Joseph de Lassone, two prize-winning essayists of the French Royal Academy of Surgery in 1737, argued strongly for breast amputation in every case of breast cancer. Among their contemporaries, Gilles Vacher, Bernard Peyrilhe, John Hunter, and Everard Home were more cautious, while Benjamin Bell was more aggressive in using the knife. The surgeons' overconfidence, optimism, mistaken diagnoses, and unreliable statistics were factors, but often they report responding to the anguished pleas of their patients. Considering patient demand for medical intervention, in spite of the unfavorable odds and harsh realities of breast cancer, creates a dilemma of medical ethics that has implications for contemporary treatment.

Maarten Ultee is professor of history at the University of Alabama, where he teaches European history. Prior to his current appointment in 1980, he taught at Stanford University, Hobart and William Smith Collete, and Davidson College; and held research appointments at the University of North Carolina and London School of Economics. He has received grants from the N.E.H., D.A.A.D., Newberry Library, and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Ultee is the author and translator of six books, including The Abbey of St. Germain des Prés in the Seventeenth Century; Adapting to Conditions: War and Society in the Eighteenth Century; The Course of French History by Pierre Goubert, which was selected by Book-of-the-Month Club; and Translations of Dutch Histories by A. T. van Deursen. He has served as a section editor for the American Historical Association Guide to Historical Literature and contributed to the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation and other reference works, journals, and reviews. His current projects include "If thy right hand offend thee. . ." A History of Amputation, a monograph that involves medical, religious, and legal history; a new edition of The Netherlands Bibliography for ABC-Clio Press; and translation of K. van Berkel, Isaac Beeckman (1588-1637), and the Mechanization of the World Picture for Johns Hopkins University Press.

Born in the Netherlands, Ultee immigrated to the United States in 1953. He studied at Reed College and received a Ph.D. from John Hopkins University in 1975, where he specialized in French and Dutch history and the history of medicine.

The lecture is presented by the Medieval Studies Program at Bard College. For further information call 914-758-6822.

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This event was last updated on 03-02-2001