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]

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 of 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 John Warren.[4] The operation was performed by Warren and several assistants without any anesthesia in an upstairs room of the Adams home. Her mother, husband, and daughter Caroline were also on hand to assist.

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 a pair of six-inch prongs sharpened to a needle point, a wooden-handled razor, a small oven 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 to expose the area on which he 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. He began the surgery by thrusting the large fork into her breast and lifting it from the chest wall. He then sliced at the base of the breast until it was completely severed from her chest. After removing the breast, he saw that the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes under Abigail's arms, and he worked 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 took around 25 minutes, but dressing the wounds took more than an hour.[4] Warren and his assistants later expressed astonishment that Abigail endured the pain of the surgery and cauterization without crying out, despite these actions being so gruesome. They were so horrifying that they caused her mother, husband, and daughter to turn away.


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] She was buried at Hancock Cemetery in Quincy.

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 1799, a carriage house owned by a wealthy New York china merchant on property purchased from Abigail and her husband Col. William Stephens Smith. The carriage house was purchased by Joseph Hart and converted it into a day hotel. Day hotels were popular at the time as they provided the burgeoning New York middle class an escape from the overcrowded and oppressive city. It was called the Mount Vernon Hotel after George Washington's home in Virginia and functioned in this capacity from 1826 to 1833. The property changed hands again when it was purchased by Jeremiah Towle. It served as the family's private residence until 1905 when, with the spread of industrialization, it was purchased by Standard Gas & Light Company. Fortunately the building was preserved until its ultimate purchase by the Colonial Dames of America in 1924. In 1939, the building was opened to the public as the Abigail Adams Smith Museum. The CDA reinterpreted the house as a day hotel and reopened it as the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden in 2000. It remains open to the public with museum tours daily (except Monday).

Family tree[edit]


  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. 

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