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1800s doctor removed 22-pound tumor

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By Brad Bowman

Kentucky Dr. Ephraim McDowell didn’t fear the impossible.

On Monday, the good doctor and surgeon — who reached fame during the 1800s — shared his tale of removing a 22-pound tumor with members of the Henry County Historical Society.

Played by Henry Dowell for Kentucky Chataqua, McDowell recounts a life-or-death surgery performed in Danville before the invention of anesthesia in what was the world’s first recorded ovariotomy.

At 16, McDowell worked as an apprentice for the Staunton, Va., physician Alexander Humphreys, who studied at the University of Edinburgh. McDowell later studied under surgeon John Bell in Scotland. McDowell returned to Danville in 1795 and opened a practice with Adam Rankin.

McDowell married Sarah Shelby, daughter of Kentucky Governor Isaac Shelby, and according to Dowell’s performance, found his worth practicing as a doctor in the wilderness of Kentucky.

“I enjoyed being a country doctor. Most patients I see on a regular basis are just dirt farmers,” Dowell said. “It’s also true that I have been more often than not paid with chickens instead of money. But students, let me tell you that great thing about that is, I never seem to run out of eggs.”

Dowell emphasized the importance McDowell placed on being a doctor on the frontier and being exposed to life’s hardships far from the comforts of the larger cities.

McDowell’s most notable surgeries included assistance from the presidential hopeful Andrew Jackson while in Nashville for removing ‘bladder stones’ from a James K. Polk, who later became the 11th president of the United States. 

McDowell would travel up to 100 miles to visit patients and received patients from the Carolinas and Cincinnati. McDowell met 46-year-old Jane Todd Crawford from Green County. Crawford thought she suffered from a delayed pregnancy that had lasted too long.

“I found instead a tumor that moved side to side,” Dowell said. “I explained to Mrs. Crawford that all the best surgeons in the world thought that opening the abdomen to extract a tumor was death.”

In his monologue, Dowell explained that Ephraim had seen farmers open the abdominal cavity of animals to spay them and they had uncomplicated recoveries.

“How much different could it be to extract a tumor from a human being,” Dowell said. “I thought it could be done. I explained to Mrs. Crawford that is she was willing to die I would remove the tumor if she was willing to travel to Danville.”

Crawford would endure a three-day, 60-mile ride on horseback to Danville. According to Dowell, she propped her tumor and her protruding abdomen that sank to her knees on a saddle horn during the winter journey up and down hills — negotiating the occasional stream.

McDowell’s patient arrived in Danville on Christmas Day in 1809.

“There was no coincidence it was performed on Christmas,” Dowell said. “I often perform surgeries on Sunday with the blessing of the divine or the prayers of the church.”

McDowell performed the 25-minute surgery in his own home and extracted a 22.5-pound tumor. He used wax cobbler’s thread to close the wound.

“Many patients may accept a little whisky but because of her faith Mrs. Crawford just bit down on a rag and recited hymns until she passed out from pain,” Dowell said. “The surgery started with a nine-inch incision. Five days, I walked in the room to check on Mrs. Crawford and there she was standing up on her own making her bed.”

Crawford would travel back home on horseback 25 days later living for an additional 32 years.

McDowell performed 11 more surgeries with one fatality. He was known for his attention to detail and meticulous cleaning of his utensils and operating table.

“Many have asked why, why I thought this was possible in, of all places, in Kentucky,” Dowell said. “A wild country still afflicted with Indians and old prejudices. It’s not London or Edinburgh, Scotland. A procedure like this had to start here in a place like this .You see these people out here these pioneers or, what was it my father called them, coonskin caps they must daily live with uncertainty and death. I challenge you young doctors to be more like them. You must be like them and find that same spirit in yourself. You cannot be afraid of the impossible.”