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Ephraim McDowell

Born: 11-Nov-1771
Birthplace: Rockbridge County, VA
Died: 25-Jun-1830
Location of death: Danville, KY
Cause of death: Appendicitis
Remains: Buried, McDowell Park, Danville, KY

Gender: Male
Religion: Anglican/Episcopalian
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Doctor

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Performed the first ovariotomy

Ephraim McDowell studied theology before briefly attending medical school in Scotland. He returned to America without obtaining a degree, and apprenticed under two established physicians before opening his own medical practice in the tiny Kentucky town of Danville. Called to deliver a child for Jane Todd Crawford, a farmer's wife from the neighboring county, he had to inform her that she was not pregnant, but instead had an ovarian tumor. The malady was routinely fatal at the time, and surgical removal of a tumor was considered unfeasible by virtually all physicians. But McDowell believed it could be done, Mrs Crawford consented, and on Christmas Day in 1809 -- decades before anesthesia or disinfectant became available -- McDowell performed the first ovariotomy.

Portions of Mrs Crawford's intestines unavoidably uncoiled and were sprawled across the table, in McDowell's living room. Restrained during the operation by two grown men, she endured the pain by screaming out memorized verses from the Psalms. McDowell quickly found and removed her ovarian tumor, which he described as "fifteen pounds of a dirty, gelatinous substance" encased in a shell, "which weighed seven pounds and a half." At the operation's conclusion, he re-warmed her loose intestines by pouring warm water over them, then stuffed them back inside her before stitching his incision closed. She not only survived but recovered fully, and lived more than thirty years after the operation -- twelve years longer than McDowell himself.

He performed the same successful operation on two more women before publishing his landmark report "Three Cases of Extirpation of Diseased Ovaria" in the journal Eclectic Repertory and Analytical Review. In his career, McDowell performed thirteen ovariotomies, and more than two dozen abdominal and hernia operations. He operated twice on one patient, future American President James Knox Polk.

Father: Samuel McDowell (b. 29-Oct-1735)
Mother: Mary McClung (b. 28-Oct-1735, one day older than Samuel)
Wife: Sarah Shelby (dau. of Isaac Shelby, m. 1802, two sons, four daughters)
Son: Shelby
Son: Wallace
Daughter: Susan
Daughter: Mary
Daughter: Adaline
Daughter: Catharine

    Theological: Bardstown Seminary, Bardstown, KY
    Medical School: University of Edinburgh (1793-94, dropped out)

    Scottish Ancestry

Appears on postage stamps:
USA, Scott #1138 (4 cents, depicting McDowell, issued 3-Dec-1959)

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