Saturday, May 21, 2011

Jane Todd Crawford

Have I got a doozy for you today! The photograph above is in a slideshow of early medical images of cancer treatment from the Stanley Burns Collection. One of the photos purports to be - but could not have depicted* - Jane Todd Crawford (1763-1842), a wife and mother of 4 when she sought treatment for a large growth in 1809. Her vivid story, however, can be found on-line. The 46-year-old woman (daguerreotype reproduced here) had to ride 60 miles on horseback to reach Ephraim McDowell (1771-1830) in Danville, Kentucky. Dr. McDowell agreed to operate and - before the benefits of anesthesia and antiseptic technique - removed a 22lb ovarian tumor through a 9" incision in 25 minutes. Crawford recovered in about 5 days, and within a matter of weeks got back on her horse and rode home. She lived another 32 years.

Jane Todd Crawford secured lasting fame for Dr. Ephraim McDowell, now considered the father of abdominal surgery. His accomplishments are celebrated in 2 biographies, a United States postage stamp, statues in the U.S. capitol and the Kentucky state capitol, a museum at his home where he performed the historic ovariotomy in 1809, and a monument and park in his hometown. As brave as she was, Crawford's name has been given to the trail she took, and her grave in Graysville, Indiana, is marked.

Weird news afficionados will be well aware that there have been many modern counterparts to this extraordinary case. Here are just a few examples (caution when clicking the links): a 93lb ovarian cyst removed from a 32-year-old woman, a 50lb ovarian cyst removed from a 66-year-old woman, a 42lb ovarian tumor removed from a 57-year-old woman, and a "'voluminous" ovarian cyst removed from a 35-year-old woman.

*I am grateful to the curator of the Ephrain McDowell House Museum for contacting me in Dec. 2011 to point out errors that I have now corrected in this post.

1 comment:

  1. McDowell House Museum curator12/22/2011 11:32 AM

    Great blog! However, that image cannot be of Jane Todd Crawford -- her surgery took place in 1809, before photography had even been invented. The CBS News site you link to says that woman's photograph was taken in 1851, almost a decade after Crawford's death. Also, Crawford was 46 when the surgery took place, not 33. There is a daguerreotype of her at the Ephraim McDowell House Museum (, taken several years before her passing. She is buried in Graysville, Indiana, not Graysville, Ohio.

    Thank you for spreading the news about this historic surgery -- we just want to make sure it's all correct! :-)


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