Marker Text: Home of Ephraim McDowell, the “father of modern surgery.” Here on December 25, 1809, McDowell performed the first successful abdominal operation when he took a 22-pound ovarian cyst from Jane Todd Crawford of Green Co. With no anesthesia, she sang hymns during the operation. Crawford recovered in 25 days and lived until 1842. Over.
(Reverse) Built in 3 stages. Brick ell, or single-story wing, built 1790s. McDowell purchased house in 1802 and added front clapboard section c. 1804. Rear brick office and formal gardens added in 1820. House sold when McDowell died in 1830. In 1930s, Ky. Med. Assoc. bought house; restored by WPA. House dedicated on May 20, 1939. Now a house museum. Over.
Location: 125 S. Second St., Danville, KY across Constitution Square. Erected by the Kentucky Historical Society, Kentucky Department of Highways in 2009.
"If you think you are prepared to die, I will take the lump from you..." Dr. McDowell said this to Mrs. Jane Todd Crawford prior to the first successful abdominal operation.
After Dr. Ephraim McDowell completed his medical training in Scotland and with Dr. Alexander Humphreys in Staunton, VA, he returned to Danville, Kentucky to began the practice of medicine. Fourteen years later he was called to see Mrs. Jane Todd Crawford, the wife of Thomas Crawford.
Earlier in 1809, Mrs. Crawford developed an enlargement of her abdomen which progressively got larger. Her local doctors assumed that she was pregnant, even though she was 45 years old. By December her abdomen was huge, and two physicians who examined her sought McDowell's advise and assistance about what they believed would be the delivery of baby. He came on horseback to her home on December 13, 1809. Jane Crawford lived on the land known as Motley's Glen on the waters of Caney Fork, nine miles southeast of Greensburg, KY and about sixty miles from Danville.
After Dr. McDowell completed his examination of Mrs. Crawford, he concluded a different diagnosis. He told Mrs. Crawford that he thought the problem was an ovarian cyst. He further told her that in the opinion of the best surgeons, removal would mean death. Being the pioneering and daring physician Dr. McDowell was he did not allow the opinions of others stop him and he explained the realities to his new patient and boldly added that "If you think you are prepared to die, I will take the lump from you..."
NOTE: When I visited Danville, the home was not open that day. I could not enter the gate to take the photo, so I took it from the sidewalk and did not realize that the text was different on the other side, so I only got the photo of one side.
In a report Dr. McDowell subsequently published about the operation years later, he 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.”
Since there was no easy way to get to Danville except on foot or by horseback. A few days later Mrs. Crawford said goodbye to her children, family and neighbors without knowing if she would ever see them again and rode a few days on horseback to Dr. McDowell's home. No records tell if she was accompanied by anyone during her journey or where she might have stopped during her journey to Danville. The journey was not an easy one to make even for a healthy individual.
On Christmas Day, 1809, two days after Mrs. Crawford turned 46 years old, McDowell removed a 22 1/2 pound cyst without the benefit of anesthesia or antiseptic materials. The operation without anesthesia lasted 25 minutes. Jane is said to have repeated the Psalms and sung hymns during the procedure. Despite the crude procedure, Mrs. Crawford suffered no complications and lived a normal life.
In the year 1809 general anesthesia was unknown but in later abdominal operations Dr. McDowell did employed opiates and alcoholic drinks for relief of pain, but no specific mention of any such agents was made in his report of Mrs. Crawford’s case. A brief excerpt from Dr. McDowell’s description of the operation was:
“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."
All told McDowell performed thirteen ovariectomies and eight patients lived. As his reputation as an abdominal surgeon grew, he expanded his repertoire. On thirty-two occasions, he performed surgery to remove bladder stones and all the operations were a success. One famous patient that he performed such surgery on was James Knox Polk, the 11th president of the United States.
From the day when Mrs. Crawford left Dr. McDowell's Danville home and returned to Greensburg, there is no record of her recovery, nor is there any statement in McDowell's later writings to indicate that she ever consulted him again. It is reasonable to assume that she made a complete recovery, since she lived 32 more years before dying at the age of 78.
When a person places in perspective the other events occurring in the world during 1809, gives one to think about the accomplishments of Dr. McDowell in Danville, KY. In 1809 the population of Kentucky was almost 400,000. On February 12 on the Sinking Spring Farm in Hardin County, Kentucky, (now LaRue County), scarcely 35 miles from the Crawford farm, a baby named Abe Lincoln was born in a log cabin similar to the Crawford dwelling. A few weeks after Lincoln's birth, on March 4, James Madison was inaugurated as the fourth United States President and the first inaugural ball. Napoleon and his French troops occupied the city of Vienna while in the same city Beethoven wrote his fifth piano concerto and published his fifth and sixth symphonies.
After Dr. McDowell's death and during the subsequent years, his home became a boarding house and was almost lost to history and torn down because it was in poor condition. As a result of local efforts to preserve McDowell’s accomplishments in Danville raise sufficient funds to purchase the home and restore it. Today the historic house where Dr. Ephraim McDowell performed this remarkable feat, is listed in the National Register. Restoration of the structure was conducted and the home was converted to a museum, open to the public. A brief history of the restoration of the McDowell house can be found on the McDowell Museum web site.