Old Woman With Eye Tumor, circa 1878

The Antiseptic Era 1876-1900


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This is a rare photograph of an older patient with a primary ocular tumor. These tumors are uncommon in old age so most photographs of retinoblastoma or rhabdomyosarcoma featured children. As a rule, there was no attempt to surgically remove these tumors and the children were only given supportive therapy until they died. In this pre-antiseptic era, fear of death from infection, inherent with surgical intervention, kept many patients from seeking timely care. People lived and died with disease states and deformities that are incomprehensible in today’s world. However, it was more common for patients with eye tumors to seek treatment because those afflicted lost their sight and became grossly disfigured.

If sought quickly enough, depending upon the type of tumor, extirpation of the globe could be curative. Rhabdomyosarcoma is the most common malignant tumor of childhood. In 25% of metastatic breast disease cases, the cancer spreads to the central nervous system, including the choroid of the eye. Retinoblastoma, primarily a congenital malignant tumor in childhood, will rarely occur in early adulthood, but not in old age.

It is a safe assumption that the old woman in this photograph did not seek medical care until her tumor was in an advanced state. Although this patient is small in stature, her hands reflect her age. She could have been suffering from a sarcoma, though it was more likely a malignant melanoma of the uvea, the primary type of malignant inner eye tumor in the elderly. A tumor this massive is very rare.

Excerpted from Oncology: Tumors & Treatment, A Photographic History, The Antiseptic Era  1876-1900 by Stanley B. Burns, MD, FACS. Photograph courtesy of Stanley B. Burns, MD, and The Burns Archive. ■



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