Dr Ephraim McDowell, 1809 fineartamerica.com

Dr Ephraim McDowell, 1809

Just one more week to go here in Galveston. I have been dividing my time between drawing the anatomy lab and studying in the Library here at the University of Texas Medical Branch. In the latter, while reading up on the historical context of everything that the Drawing Women’s Cancer project is, I came across this quote. It is a narrative of the first successful ovariotomy performed by Ephraim McDowell on Mrs Jane Crawford in Danville, Kentucky in1809.

It moved me.

In Dr McDowell’s own words (in extracts):

The abdomen was considerably enlarged, and had the appearance of a pregnancy, although the inclination of the tumour was to one side… I gave 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 residence. This appeared somewhat impracticable by any, even the most favourable, conveyance though she performed the journey in a few days by horseback. With the assistance of my nephew and colleague… I commenced the operation, which was concluded as follows.

having place her on her table of ordinary height, on her back, and removed all her dressing which might in any way impede the operation, I made an incision about three inches from the musculus rectus abdominis on the left side, continuing the same nine inches in length, parallel with the fibres of the above named muscle, extending into the cavity of the abdomen, the parieties of which were a good deal contused, which we ascribed to the resting of the tumour on the horn of the saddle during her journey. The tumour then appeared in full view, but was so large that we could not take it away entire. We put a strong ligature around the fallopian tube near the uterus then cut open the tumour which was the ovarium and the fibrous part of the fallopian tube very much enlarged…as soon as the opening was made the intestines rushed out upon the table, and so completely was the abdomen filled by the tumour that they could not be replaced during the operation which was terminated in about twenty five minutes. …we closed the external opening with the interrupted suture… Between every two stitches we put a strip of adhesive plaster, which, by keeping the parts in contact, hastened the healing of the incision. We then applied the usual dressings, put her to bed…In five days I visited her and much to my astonishment I found her engaged in making up her bed. I gave her particular caution for the future and in twenty-five days she returned home as she came, in good health which she continued to enjoy.

There is no record of any form of anaesthesia during the operation and Mrs Crawford ‘kept her courage’ by repeating Psalms and singing hymns. She lived to be seventy-eight years old.

(Quote from Graham, H. (1951) The Eternal Eve)


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