A DARKER RIBBON by Ellen Leopold


Breast Cancer, Women, and Their Doctors in the Twentieth Century
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A cultural history of breast cancer that focuses primarily on how social acceptance of the unequal roles of men and women has impeded progress in a woman’s disease. Leopold, a writer on women’s health issues for the Chicago Tribune, the Nation, and Self magazine and herself a breast cancer survivor, examines the social dynamics that have shaped contemporary attitudes toward breast cancer. She looks closely at the interaction between male physician and female patient as a key aspect of that dynamic. Besides giving the larger picture, Leopold includes an intimate closeup through revealing correspondence between two articulate women and their doctors. The first set, spanning the period 1917—22, is between a compliant woman, Barbara Mueller, and the famous surgeon William Steward Halsted, who developed the radical mastectomy procedure that was the standard treatment for breast cancer for most of this century; the second set, 1960—64, is between Rachel Carson, who had undergone the Halsted procedure, and George Crile, a trusted friend and surgeon from whom the noted scientist and writer sought advice when her own surgeon lied to her about her disease. Leopold notes that real changes in social attitudes toward the disease and in the biomedical approach to it were slow in coming. Nevertheless, the taboos against public disclosure were gradually lifted, notably in women’s magazines. The rise in breast cancer consciousness developed for the most part, she finds, outside the feminist movement, with women volunteers drafted by the male-dominated American Society for the Control of Cancer (later the American Cancer Society) to spread its message about the benefits of early detection. Attention is also given to the impact of the National Cancer Act of 1971, First Lady Betty Ford’s breast cancer in 1974, and the subsequent appearance of the first nationally known breast cancer advocate, Washington Post writer Rose Kushner. Now that women are involved, Leopold seems to be saying, things are looking up. A feminist approach to history for which the most appreciative audience will be found in women’s study courses.

Pub Date: Oct. 27th, 1999
ISBN: 0-8070-6512-9
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Beacon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1999


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