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Amy Umble is health reporter for The Free Lance-Star

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In Mary Washington’s time, breast cancer was little understood, widely feared and often fatal

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Genevieve Bugay will talk about Mary Washington’s breast cancer tomorrow.

When tourists visit the Mary Washington House tomorrow, Genevieve Bugay, the costumed guide, plans to tell them that they have arrived on a sad day.

“Mrs. Washington has just died,” Bugay will say.

Saturday is the 223rd anniversary of Mary Washington’s death. Those who tend her home and memory plan to mark the occasion from noon to 3 p.m. with recollections of the woman and the disease that killed her.

“She suffered dreadfully for some months with breast cancer,” Bugay said.

Mary Washington died in her bed at 3 p.m. at her white-frame home at 1200 Charles Street. She was 81.

Family members were with her at the end, though her son, George, the nation’s first president, was in New York City, the new seat of government. Burgess Ball, a family member, wrote to George that day to tell him of his mother’s death. For the last 15 days, Mary Washington was unable to speak, Ball wrote. For the last five days she was “asleep.”

Bugay, who usually serves as site coordinator at the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop, will move to the Mary Washington House tomorrow to receive mourners. She has prepared for the day by studying Washington family correspondence and medical texts from the period. She has learned that, like today, breast cancer in the Colonial period was widely known, little understood and often fatal.

Bugay said it appears that Mrs. Washington suffered from an advanced case of the disease. When her doctor wrote about her to Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, one of the most famous physicians in the colonies, Rush advised comfort measures.

This portrait of Mary Ball Washington is by Robert Edge Pine. It is from 1786.

Apply poultices of opium and camphor, Rush advised. Wash the infected breast with a solution of red clover, he said, and give her cocktails of wine and bark.

Mrs. Washington’s breast was apparently swollen and discolored, and the tumor may have broken through the surface of the skin. She was probably in pain.

In one letter, her daughter, Betty Lewis, told George Washington, “I’m sorry to inform you my mother’s breast still continues bad. God only knows how it will end.”

(The website for the Mary Washington House is here. A popular medical text from the period, Domestic Medicine by William Buchan, is available here through Google Books. It contains a chapter on cancer.)