Mary Ball Washington’s battle with breast cancer has been well documented through letters written between George Washington and his sister, as well as medical records/ journals kept by her doctors. “A primary difference between then and now is detection,” says Anne Darron, Executive Director of Washington Heritage Museums. “Currently, through mammograms, 3D mammograms, and the like, cancer is able to be detected in its early stages. In Mary Washington’s time, it would only be detectible when the lump had grown large enough to be felt or when there were other undeniable signs. While I don’t have statistics for the rate of breast cancer during the late 1700s and early 1800s, it is interesting to note that John Adams daughter, “Nabby” also succumbed to the disease in the early 1800s.”
Common treatment at the time included “spreading the whites of two raw eggs on a piece of linen and applying it while wet to the problem area…The linen must be frequently moistened in the egg.” It was noted that Washington also sent his mother hemlock from New York for her treatment, as it was hard to come by in Fredericksburg.
Communication about Mary Washington between her doctor’s Doctor Elisha Hall and Doctor Benjamin Rush:
“The respectable age and character of your venerable patient lead me to regret that it is not in my power to suggest a remedy for the cure of the disorder you have described in her breast. I know nothing of the root that you mention is found in Carolina and Georgia, but from a variety of inquiries and experiments I am disposed to believe that there does not exist in the vegetable kingdom an antidote to cancers. All the supposed vegetable remedies I have heard of are compounds of some mineral caustics. The arsenic is the most powerful of any of them. It is the basis of Dr. Martin’s powder. I have used it in many cases with success, but have failed in some. From your account of Mrs. Washington’s breast, I am afraid no great good can be expected from the use of it. Perhaps it may cleanse it and thereby retard its spreading. You may try it, diluted in water. Continue the application of opium and camphor, and wash it frequently with a decoction of red clover. Give anodynes when necessary, and support the system with bark and wine. Under this treatment, she may live comfortably many years and finally die of old age.”
George Washington’s devotion and love for his mother continued even after her passing. It was observed by Senator William Maclay, that when the president came to address both houses of Congress on January 8, 1790, a little over four months after the loss of his mother, he was dressed in “second mourning.”
Mary Ball Washington died on August 25th, 1789. She is buried right here in Fredericksburg near Kenmore, which was her favorite retreat for reading, prayer and meditation. “In the 18th century very few women were honored with an obituary following their death,” says Darren. “When Mary Washington passed on August 25, 1789 her death was mentioned in newspapers across the country.”
FREDERICKSBURG, August 27.
On Tuesday, the 25th inst. died at her house in this town, MRS. MARY WASHINGTON, aged 82 years (sic.), the venerable mother of the illustrious President of the United States, after a long and painful indisposition, which she bore with uncommon patience. Though a pious tear of duty, affection and esteem, is due to the memory of so revered a character, yet our grief must be greatly alleviated from the consideration that she is relieved from the pitiable infirmities attendant on an extreme old age…”
—Gazette of the United-States, September 9, 1789.
Mary Washington House and Mary’s Ribbons
Each year, the Mary Washington House hosts a Mary’s Ribbons event in October, which is breast cancer awareness month. While the diagnosis was a death sentence in her time, when detected early, the 5-year relative survival rate is 99 percent. The public is invited to tie pink ribbons to the fence in front of the house during the event, which is used to raise funds and spread awareness of early detection.
Read more about Mary Ball Washington – Mother of America