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This webpage reproduces a section of
De Medicina (On Medicine)

by
A. Cornelius Celsus

published in Vol. III
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1935

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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(Vol. III) Celsus
On Medicine

p589 Appendix I

ON THE MEANING OF THE WORD "CANCER" IN CELSUS
AND HIS REFERENCES TO MALIGNANT DISEASE

Under this term Celsus includes several entirely different diseases. The word "canker" has been used in the translation, as the conditions referred to do not, as far as we can judge, include the disease now generally known as cancer.1

He includes under this name:

(1) In Book V.26.31 Celsus describes the general characteristics of septic ulcerations.2 He had noted early in his work that they occur especially in wounds p590which have been exposed to moisture,3 and in several passages he refers to the situation or treatment of such wounds.4

The condition was a combination of the mortification of living tissue and the putrefaction of dead tissue, which is now known to be set up by the united action of septic and gas-forming organisms.

(2) Erysipelas originally meant a redness of the skin due to an eruption or ulceration, and was used with this general meaning in Greek writers on medicine.5 The term was used of many conditions and had many synonyms. It gradually became restricted to the disease now called erysipelas and proved to be due to streptococcal infection. Celsus gives a clear description of this disease as one of the varieties of cancer and states that the Greek name for it was erysipelas.6

Ignis Sacer.7 This name has often been used simply as an alternative for erysipelas, but Celsus seems to denote by it an erysipelatous complication of a chronic creeping ulceration, such as the tuberculous ulceration now called lupus.8 Pliny, however, p591gave the name to herpes zoster (shingles).9 While Celsus described erysipelas under the heading of "cancer," he spoke of ignis sacer as something different.10

(3) Gangrene. The general term "cancer" was applied in Latin to several varieties of gangrene, which the Greeks distinguished by different names.11 It occurred in wounds complicating fractures and dislocations, or as a consequence of too tight bandaging,12 or as a spreading gangrene (phagedaena)13 which could only be treated by amputation of the limb involved, or in the mouth perhaps as the result of thrush (aphtha).14

Malignant Disease. — Although in a number of p592passages Celsus clearly refers to superficial malignant disease, his name for it is carcinoma or carcinode. In the principal passage about it15 he starts by saying that it is not very dangerous unless interfered with by injudicious treatment, but goes on to mention a more dangerous form which he describes as cacoethes (κακοήθες), malignant, using the Greek adjective which is often applied to the disease by Hippocrates.16 For this variety alone he suggests operative treatment though he gives no details.17

He goes on to refer to several varieties of local superficial cancer or rodent ulcer using the terms carcinode18 and carcinoma19 and mentions the disease as occurring on the face, nose, ears, lips, corner of the eye and in the breast; he also speaks of cancerous nasal polypus and carcinoma at the umbilicus.20

Celsus says nothing about internal cancer21 — the κρυπτοὶº καρκίνοι known to Hippocrates and stated by him to be incurable and untreatable.22


The Editor's Notes:

1 The descriptions given by Celsus are not very clear and often apply to more than one disease so that it is not possible to be certain on this point.

2 The description is confused by the addition of symptoms of erysipelas and gangrene which no doubt often complicated such cases. These ulcers arose in injuries of long standing (VIII.2.1). The Greek name was σηπεδών (Hippocrates IV.126, 128, Aphorisms iii.16, 21).

3 See V.26.28D (for the danger of bathing, which changes an ordinary wound into "cancer").

4 Cancer and especially cancer in obscaenis (σηπεδόνες αἰδοίων) II.1.7; prescriptions for it, V.20.4, 5; VI.18.3A and B.

5 Hippocrates I.LVIII, 240; II.46; III.5.

6 V.26.31B; later he twice refers to this passage and to the treatment for the disease using the name erysipelas. (V.26.33a and 28.11B).

7 Virgil (Georgics, III.553‑566) describes under this name an epizootic, which also affected human beings, perhaps anthrax.

8 V.28.4. Medicaments for it are prescribed, V.22.7 and 24.4.

9 Pliny, N. H. XXVI.121. In this he had been followed by some other writers on medicine, but herpes does not "creep," and is certainly not the disease referred to by Celsus in V.28.4.

10 V.22.7. Timaeus autem ad ignem sacrum, ad cancrum his utebatur.

11 V.26.31B. See also Hippocrates III.352, 360, 432 (Joints, LXIII, LXIX, Mochlikon, XXXV).

12 V.26.31C; VIII.10.1C, G, 7B, 11.2; 25.3.

13 For Phagedaena and its treatment see V.26.34; 28.3B; VI.18.4; VII.33.

14 For Cancrum Oris (oris cancer) see VI.15.1, where it is describe be as supervening on ulcers in the mouth; the treatment of these is given in VI.11 and a dangerous form, said to be often fatal to children, is described under the name of aphthae. Aphthae are also referred to in Book II.1.18 where it is generally assumed that Celsus is speaking of thrush, the popular name of the condition to which the name Aphtha is now attached; but under this name he probably included more dangerous varieties of mouth ulceration, which seems to have been a common and fatal form of illness among children; it caused the death of little Canace (Martial XI.91) and perhaps "tore the cheeks of Proca" (Ovid, Fasti VI.148).

15 V.28.2.A-F: see also VI.8.2B: when he advises against treatment: quae (caruncula) fere carcinodes est; itaque attingi non debet; and VII.14.4, caro quoque carcinomati similis cum periculo tractatur.

16 Hippocrates (Coac. 141, 316, 524, 603, Littré, V.614, 652, 704, 724).

17 Tolli nihil nisi cacoethes potest; reliqua (sc. carcinomata) curationibus inritantur (V.28C).

18 V.18.17, 23; VI.8.2B.

19 V.28.2A, VII.7.7.

20 VII.14.1. There is nothing to show whether this was local in origin or had spread outwards from an abdominal organ.

21 Unless a very uncertain emendation of the text (V.28.2A) is accepted, which makes him refer to cancer of the uterus.

22 Hippocrates IV.188 (Aph. VI.38).

Page updated: 11 Apr 03