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Ephraim McDowell, M.D.

He Pioneered Abdominal Surgery on the American Frontier

In December of 1809 Ephraim McDowell, M.D., removed a 20-lb. tumor from the abdomen of a pioneer woman, a feat hitherto considered impossible. He thus became the first physician to practice successful abdominal surgery. ■ Dr. McDowell was born in Rockbridge County, Virginia, the descendant of some of the earliest Scottish immigrants to America. His father was a prominent Virginia judge. Young McDowell finished college and decided to become a physician. To learn more about medicine, he worked under the direction of a Staunton, Virginia doctor. ■ In 1793 he sailed for Scotland and Edinburgh University, which had become the Mecca of the western world for medical training. Two years later he set up a medical practice in Danville, Kentucky. With virtually no medical facilities, many of the frontier doctors distinguished themselves by their resourcefulness. ■ When Jane Todd Crawford became ill, Dr. McDowell diagnosed her ailment as an ovarian tumor and decided to operate. He had traveled on horseback two days to see Mrs. Crawford. The hardy Scottish frontiers-woman didn’t hesitate when he asked her to make the journey back to Danville with him for the surgery. ■ Without anesthesia or antisepsis, he removed the tumor, sewed up the incision, and awaited possible infection. She recovered and lived to be 79. Dr. McDowell wrote a report on the operation, but only after eight years had elapsed and he had performed similar surgery twice more. On both sides of the Atlantic, the article evoked skepticism and disbelief. But he continued his work, performing abdominal surgery 13 times before his death on June 25, 1830, in Danville. ■ A monument stands in the Danville town square commemorating the man and the event—the world’s first successful abdominal surgery.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society
Scottish-American History Club
2800 Des Plaines Avenue
North Riverside, IL 60546