13 November 2013

'An encysted tumour'

William Pitt suffered much from a recurring encysted tumour on one of his cheeks from the time he was at Pembroke Hall (now Pembroke College) in Cambridge until - as far as is recorded - 1788. Reilly (1978: 47) states that Pitt was in London in February 1779 having “an unsightly cyst” removed from his face. Whoever performed the surgery on Pitt must have given him something which made him drowsy and dulled his senses. The swelling recurred in early 1786, and is recorded in a letter from Lady Harriot Eliot (Pitt’s sister) to their mother Hester Chatham, dated February 28, 1786. Amongst other news, Harriot reassures her mother:

"…I did not say any thing about William’s Face because I was for some time in ye idea that what is to be done to it woud have been done before now, and that I might have had ye pleasure of telling you the swelling was quite removed when I mention’d the Subject. He saw Sharp [presumably a physician] immediately after my coming to Town, who gives a great deal of Comfort as to its being finally cured, and having nothing to do with his Constitution; But he thinks it will be necessary to open it, which he says will not be attended with much pain…though I always knew from ye Little one [cyst] He [William] had at Cambridge what it must come to, I did not like to write to you about it…it was Sharp’s Choice to delay it [the operation], as he wish’d to be certain of a few days, or a week’s Quiet from speaking in ye House. I ask’d him [Sharp] whether it woud at all increase ye Pain of Opening it by Delaying it; and He assured me not, and that even shoud it break of its own accord there woud be a little oozing perhaps which woud heal up immediately…"(Eliot, ed. by Cuthbert Headlam, 1914: 137-138).

It is clear, from Lady Harriot's personal testimony, that Pitt had a facial cyst on his cheek on more than one occasion.

It was agreed to delay the operation, and it was eventually performed in mid-September 1786, not by Sharp, but by the famous surgeon John Hunter at Pitt’s residence on Downing Street (see Hague 2005; Ehrman 1969). The procedure to remove the cyst lasted approximately six minutes, and Pitt amazed those around him (including his close friend and former tutor George Pretyman) by his ability to deal with the pain (considering these were the days before anaesthetics!). The pain from this cyst returned in August 1788, but that is the last that is officially recorded (Ehrman, 1969: 594).
I am consistently impressed by Pitt’s courage and strength against what must have been a very painful experience.


Eliot, H. (ed. by Cuthbert Headlam) (1914) The Letters of Lady Harriot Eliot, 1766-1786. Edinburgh: T. and A. Constable, pp. 137-138.

Ehrman, J. (1969) The Younger Pitt: The years of acclaim. London: Constable, p. 594.

Hague, W. (2005) William Pitt the Younger. London: Harper Press.

Reilly, R. (1978) Pitt the Younger. London: Cassell, p. 47.

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