Essay on the general method of treating cancerous tumors (1753)

Norford, William (1715-1793)


Norford, William (1715-1793)

Norford, William (1715-1793)

According to the Dictionary of National Biography (1885-1900, vol 41), Norford was a country doctor and midwife in Suffolk County who learned his trade as an apprentice of John Amyas, a surgeon in Norwich. In 1761, he became an extra-licentiate of the College of Physicians in London. He died at the age of 77 in 1793. 

During his life, he published two works, the copy in our collection, and “A Letter to Dr. Sharpin… in answer to his appeal to the public, &c. concerning his medical treatment of Mr. John Ralling,” a 64-page document.

In the introduction to his Essay on the general method of treating cancerous tumors, he apologizes for daring to address the treatment of such an intractable disease and shares his knowledge and limited experience. He quotes Hippocrates as his mantra: Oportet medicum tentare duo, vel prodesse, vel saltem non nocere, which means the physician must try two things, either to benefit or at least not to harm (a patient).

He correctly observes the haphazard nature of the outcome of treating cancer. He quotes Celsus, who observed that “The effect of surgery are more manifest than the other branches of Physic (Medicine); since in diseases, nature or chance may do much, and the same medicine have sometimes proved salutary, and sometimes had no effect at all, so that it is a matter of doubt, whether health is occasioned by the medicines that have been administered, or by the good natural constitution of the body”. He intended the book for the benefit of young surgeons.

He advocates dietary restrictions after cancer surgery, such as avoiding smoked and pickled cured meat or drinking alcohol. He recommends vegetables and milk and a change in diet and lifestyle, preferably for the rest of the patient’s life. Norford’s book includes treatments considered dubious even in the 18th century. He continued to apply bleeding and purging despite the discovery of the blood circulation 125 years prior. He thought menstrual bleeding or hemorrhoids protected patients because of the natural blood loss. He recommended mercury for cancerous tumors, a remedy used even at the beginning of the 20th century. Overall, Norford has the best of intentions in this book, but his limited experience made this book less useful, even at the time when it was published.

Editorial notes by Andrew I Spielman.

Digital Version