Abigail Adams Smith

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This article is about the daughter of U.S. president John Adams. For his wife (and this article's subject's mother), see Abigail Adams.
Abigail "Nabby" Adams Smith
Born July 14, 1765
Quincy, Province of Massachusetts Bay
Died August 9, 1813(1813-08-09) (aged 48)
Quincy, Massachusetts
Spouse(s) William Stephens Smith
Children William, John, Thomas, Caroline

Abigail "Nabby" Amelia Adams Smith (July 14, 1765 – August 15, 1813) was the firstborn of Abigail and John Adams, founding father and second President of the United States. She was named for her mother.[1]

Abigail "Nabby" Adams was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, on July 14, 1765,

Romance and marriage[edit]

At the age of 18, Nabby met and fell in love with Royall Tyler. Her father thought she was too young to have a suitor, but he eventually accepted it. At one point the two were even engaged to be married. But John Adams, then the U.S. minister to the Kingdom of Great Britain, eagerly called for his wife and daughter to join him in London. For a time, Nabby maintained a long distance relationship with Tyler, but eventually broke off the engagement, leaving Tyler depressed.

Shortly afterward Nabby met Colonel William Stephens Smith, who was serving as her father's secretary and was 10 years her senior. They were married at the American minister's residence in London on June 12, 1786.[2] Nabby's observations of European life and customs, and many of the distinguished statesmen of the day, were later published.[3]

Their children were:

  • William Steuben Smith
  • John Adams Smith
  • Thomas Hollis Smith
  • Caroline Amelia Smith

Diagnosis of Breast Cancer[edit]

In 1810, Nabby was diagnosed with breast cancer. On October 8, 1811 a mastectomy was performed by a skilled surgeon in Boston, Dr. John Warren.[4] The operation was performed without any anesthesia in an upstairs room of the Adams home. It was also said by Dr. John Warren, that she never cried out although she endured extreme amounts of pain during the surgery.

The Surgery[edit]

The exact details of the surgery are not known but it was described as a typical 19th century operation. The instruments used during the surgery consisted of a large fork with two, six-inch prongs sharpened to a needle point and a wooden-handled razor, as well as a small oven in the corner of the room, filled with heated coals, and a thick iron spatula. Before the surgery began Dr. Warren strapped "Nabby" into a chair to restrain her, and then began to remove the clothing from where they would operate. Once the diseased breast was exposed, other physicians held her left arm back, so that Dr. Warren would have better access to the diseased tissue. Then he began the surgery by thrusting the large fork into her breast, then began lifting the breast from the chest wall. He then began slicing the base of the breast until it was completely severed from her chest. However, after removing the breast, he saw that the cancer had spread to Abigail's lymph nodes under her arms, but he was able to remove those tumors as well. To stop Abigail's bleeding Dr. Warren applied the heated spatula to cauterize the open cuts, and then sutured the wounds. The surgery only took around 25 minutes, but dressing the wounds took more than an hour.[4]


About seven months after the surgery in 1812, Abigail finally started to feel well once more. So then she returned home to New York. But then she began feeling pain in her abdomen and spine, as well as suffering from painful headaches. At first a local doctor in New York said that the pain was from rheumatism, but later in 1813 new tumors began to appear in the scar tissue as well as on the skin. This was because when Dr. Warren removed her breast, tiny malignant cancers were left behind, and turned into their own tumors. So in spring of 1813 her doctor diagnosed her yet again with cancer, except it spread everywhere in her body. She then wanted to return to her father and mother's house to die there. "Nabby" Adams Smith died on August 9, 1813 at the age of 48.[4]

Depictions in popular culture[edit]

Nabby's death is a poignant part of the 2008 John Adams miniseries, in which she is played by Sarah Polley; Nabby Adams as a young girl was played by Madeline Taylor in the first three episodes of the same series. The screenplay for that television drama shifted the date of her diagnosis to 1803 and altered many other details of her life.[5]

Abigail Adams Smith Museum[edit]

The Abigail Adams Smith Museum, now known as the Mount Vernon Hotel, Museum and Garden, was, in 1795, a carrigage house owned by Abigail and her husband Col. William Stephens Smith. However, ownership changed over time and finally in the 1820s the name was changed to the Mount Vernon Hotel. Then with the spread of industrialization, the hotel was purchased by Standard Gas Light Company. Then later on in 1939, the building was reopened as the Abigail Adams Smith Museum under the direction of Colonial Dames of America.[6] The name was changed back to the Mount Vernon Hotel, Museum and Garden in 2000.[7]


  1. ^ (2006) American Experience: John and Abigail Adams. PBS Paramount.
  2. ^ Nagel, Paul C. 1987. The Adams women: Abigail and Louisa Adams, their sisters and daughters. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-503874-6
  3. ^ Smith, Abigail Adams 1841. Journal and correspondence of Miss Adams, daughter of John Adams, second president of the United States, written in France and England, in 1785. book
  4. ^ a b c "Abigail Adams Smith | History of American Women". www.womenhistoryblog.com. Retrieved 2015-05-12. 
  5. ^ Jeremy Stern (October 27, 2008). "What's Wrong with HBO's Dramatization of John Adams's Story". History News Network. Retrieved March 18, 2011. 
  6. ^ "Field Trip". 
  7. ^ "Colonial Dames". 

External links[edit]