MY KENTUCKY: A Christmas Miracle

By Sam Terry
Managing Editor
Jobe Publishing, Inc.

Dr. Ephraim McDowell

Danville, Kentucky was the scene of a Christmas miracle that changed the world of medicine, particularly for women. On December 25, 1809, Dr. Ephraim McDowell removed a 22.5-pound cystic ovarian tumor from Jane Todd Crawford, the world first ovariotomy and successful abdominal surgery.

Physicians in Green County, Kentucky assumed 45-year old Crawford was pregnant as her abdomen became progressively larger. Well past what should have been her due date, they sought advice from McDowell who had studied medicine under Alexander Humphreys in Virginia and had attended lectures at the University of Edinburgh School of Medicine in Scotland.

McDowell rode horseback to Crawford’s home on Motley’s Glen on Caney Fork Creek, about 9 miles southeast of Greensburg. Examining Crawford on December 13, he advised that he believed the unusual swelling in her abdomen to be an ovarian cyst.

McDowell advised Crawford, “If you think you are prepared to die, I will take the lump from you…” Recording his diagnosis, McDowell wrote: “Having never seen so large a substance extracted, nor heard of an attempt, or success attending any operation, such as this required, I gave to the unhappy woman information of her dangerous situation. She appeared willing to undergo an experiment, which I promised to perform if she would come to Danville, (the town where I live) a distance of sixty miles from her place of residence.”
Jane Todd Crawford left her family and rode horseback 60 miles to McDowell’s home; there is no record of anyone accompanying her or how long the journey took. Two days after turning 46 years old, Crawford submitted herself to McDowell’s experiment, hopeful that his bold idea of surgery would save her life.

Without benefit of anesthesia, Crawford sang hymns and cited various Psalms as she was held still by attendants while McDowell extracted the tumor in a surgery lasting 25 minutes. Crude, experimental, and without antiseptsis, the surgery was a success.

McDowell wrote, “Jane’s recovery was rapid. Within 5 days she was making up her own bed, and in 25 days she returned home as she came, in good health.” Jane Todd Crawford lived another 32 years, dying at age 78.

Regarding his role in the surgery, McDowell wrote, “how is it that I have been so peculiarly fortunate with my patients of this description? I know not; for, all of the information I can obtain, there has not been one individual survived who have be operation on elsewhere for diseased ovaria. I can only say that the blessing of God has rested on my efforts.”

The Ephraim McDowell House in Danville. Photo courtesy of Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives

Having performed the world’s first successful abdominal operation, McDowell’s reputation as a surgeon increased and he performed thirteen other ovariotomies, although eight of those patients died. He also operated on 32 other patients to remove bladder stones; one of those patients was President James K. Polk.

One of two Ephraim McDowell statues – one stands in the rotunda of the Kentucky Capitol and its twin is in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol.

The McDowell House in Danville, designated as a National Historic Landmark, has been preserved by the Kentucky Medical Association and is open as a museum. In 1929, Isaac Bernheim commissioned sculptor Charles Henry Niehaus to create two identical statues of McDowell – one for the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall and the other for the rotunda of the Kentucky Capitol. The statue depicts McDowell standing in front of a table on which sits a bowl holding the tumor removed from Jane Todd Crawford.

Sam Terry’s MY KENTUCKY appears weekly in Jobe Publishing newspapers in celebration of the 225th anniversary of Kentucky statehood.

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