Marker Text: Burial site of Ephraim McDowell, the “father of modern surgery.” His family moved here from Va. in 1784. He studied medicine in Va. and Scotland before practicing in Danville. In 1802, he married Sarah Shelby, dau. of Ky.’s first gov. Was also a founder & early trustee of Centre College.
(Reverse) McDowell-Crawford Surgery- Dec. 25, 1809, McDowell performed world’s 1st successful abdominal operation when he took a 22-pound ovarian cyst from Jane Todd Crawford of Green County. With no anesthesia, she sang hymns during the ordeal. She recovered in 25 days & lived until 1842. McDowell died in 1830 and is buried in the Presbyterian churchyard.
Location: West Main St. at McDowell Park, Danville west of the Presbyterian Church and in front of the location of Dr. McDowell's grave. Presented by Ephraim McDowell Health and erected by the Kentucky Historical Society, Kentucky Department of Highways in 2008.
Since November, I have been covering historic markers related to the family of Dr. Ephraim McDowell. When Ephraim was about 12 years old, he moved with his family to the Danville, KY area from Rockbridge County, Virginia around 1783, when Ephraim's father, Samuel McDowell was appointed as one of the judges for the first Kentucky court and later played an important role in the framing of Kentucky's constitution and statehood. Links to other markers are included in this post.
Photo taken looking east on Main Street with the Presbyterian Church seen on the right, McDowell’s burial site is also on the right from the marker.
When Ephraim was 19 years old he had begun his medical studies with Dr. Alexander Humphreys of Staunton, Virginia. In 1793 and 1794 McDowell studied in Edinburgh, where he was associated with the illustrious surgeon, John Bell. In 1795, he had returned to Danville without receiving any formal medical degree where he began the practice of medicine in partnership with Dr. Adam Rankin. In an area where few doctors could boast of having attended the best schools in this country, let alone studying abroad, McDowell's training and skill placed him at the cutting edge of his profession. His reputation spread rapidly and he was soon acknowledged to be the best surgeon west of Philadelphia. In 1802 he married Sarah Hart Shelby, daughter of Isaac Shelby, the first governor of the state of Kentucky. They purchased a house adjacent to his shop. The McDowell's had nine children in this house, with five living to adulthood.
McDowell monument and burial site on the grounds of the Presbyterian Church in Danville near the marker. Click any photo to enlarge.
The event which made Dr. McDowell famous as a surgeon occurred on Sunday, December 25, 1809, Christmas morning, when he began his historic operation. He conducted the operation during Sunday morning worship services in order to reduce the numbers of people who might want to observe the operation, since some might have felt surgery was evil experimentation. The operation was performed in Dr. McDowell's own home, on Second Street in Danville.
The surgery was performed without benefit of anesthetic or antisepsis, neither of which was known to the medical profession at the time. Mrs. Crawford was placed on a long wooden table covered with a blanket. She was fully dressed and perfectly conscious during every movement of the surgeon. Dr. McDowell used only an oral dose of opium for pain and to restrain her involuntary muscles, and permit the surgeon to work, assistants held down her arms and legs with force. It was reported Mrs. Crawford sang hymns and repeated Psalms during the procedure. Mrs. Jane Todd Crawford's surgery was successful, the first removal of an ovarian tumor in the world. The tumor weighted twenty-two and half pounds.
Inscription on the back of the monument to Dr. Dowell. Click any photo to enlarge.
Later Doctor McDowell reported, "In five days I visited her, and much to my astonishment found her engaged in making her bed. I gave her particular caution for the future and she returned home as she came, in good health, which she continues to enjoy." She returned to her Green County home, twenty-five days after the operation and lived another thirty-two years. This was Mrs. Crawford was 47 at the time of the operation and died at the age of 78. Dr. McDowell's account of the operation was published in 1817 and created a sensation in the medical world. He went on to perform eight more ovariotomies.
McDowell practiced surgery and was a pioneer in abdominal surgical techniques. One of his most famous patients was future President James Polk, then a member of the Tennessee legislature, for whom he removed a gall stone and repaired a hernia. McDowell was a member of the Philadelphia Medical Society in 1817 and a founder of Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, in 1819. He was also well known for his generosity, and he performed considerable work for charity.
In June 1830 McDowell, at the age of fifty-eight, was stricken with an acute attack of violent pain, nausea, and fever. He died on June 25, it is believed he was most likely a victim of a ruptured appendix. In 1827, three years before his death, the University of Maryland conferred on McDowell the honorary degree of doctor of medicine.
Photo taken looking west on Main Street, part of Centre College campus to the right and west.
A sculpture of Dr. McDowell was placed by the state of Kentucky in the National Statuary Hall. The National Statuary Hall Collection in the United States Capitol is comprised of statues donated by individual states to honor persons notable in their history. The entire collection now consists of 100 statues contributed by 50 states. All 50 states have contributed two statues each. Dr. McDowell and Henry Clay are the two citizens of Kentucky honored in this hall with sculptures. Dr. McDowell was the great great grandfather of General John Campbell Greenway, whose statue was also placed in the National Statuary Hall by the state of Arizona. In 1879 a monument was erected in his honor in Danville.
McDowell House Museum, Inc., Danville, KY