Monday, October 9, 2023

World-Famous Tumor Surgery by Dr. Ephraim McDowell

    By Tiffany Amber Stockton

In September, I shared the next to last group of state origins. Only one more post to go on those. You can read last month's post if you missed it.

Today, we're looking at a world-famous surgery performed by an amazing physician who married the daughter of the first governor of Kentucky.


I recently had the good fortune of visiting the McDowell House in Danville, Kentucky. Bonus fact. It's also the site and town where the Kentucky Constitution was decided and signed to make Kentucky a state...the first on the western side of the Appalachians.

While waiting for our tour of the house, we stepped inside five log buildings that had been carefully maintained and restored to resemble their original condition. There was a post office, a meeting house, a jail, a courthouse, and the first apartments for the territory. Between 1784 and 1792, 10 constitutional conventions took place at the courthouse of Constitution Square. The jail had a fascinating story about a pair of brothers who had been apprehended on charges of robbery and fraud, escaped the jail, but then were found again. There was also the first bar, but that was a white clapboard building that's now a working restaurant on site.
These buildings represent the early beginnings of a state with a rich history and countless ties to the westward expansion of the United States. Those who explored this area were true pioneers, fighting through the dense forests and establishing friendly relations with the Native Americans they encountered.

In the early days of this young nation, this rugged landscape was mostly wild and untamed, and doctors didn't always have a place to call home. Instead, they traveled sometimes more than 100 miles to attend to those who needed their care. Dr. Ephraim McDowell was one such doctor, although he was also known across a large territory as a highly skilled surgeon as well. 
When we finally had the opportunity to begin our tour, we were led through the outdoor gardens that have remained the herb and root gardens they were when Dr. McDowell lived there. How convenient it must have been to simply step outside and retrieve the necessary vegetables for cooking or herbs for healing. It's amazing to think of those same herbs still being used today in the healing process. My favorite part was probably the apothecary shop with its wide array of tinctures, blends, and healing items.

Dr. McDowell's knowledge was likely why he was called to attend to Mrs. Jane Crawford when she realized something wasn't right about what she had thought was a twin pregnancy. However, when intense pain occurred almost incessantly, she and others knew they needed a doctor to examine her. Dr. McDowell arrived and discovered Mrs. Crawford wasn't pregnant, but had an ovarian tumor. He offered to perform the surgery to remove the tumor, but he was honest in telling her the chances of survival with or without the surgery were slim. Either the tumor would kill her, or the surgery would. It was her choice.

The doctor left, and a few days later, Mrs. Crawford followed, making the 60-mile journey on horseback with the tumor still intact. She agreed to the surgery—one that had never been done anywhere in the world at the time. On Christmas morning of 1809, Dr. McDowell performed the surgical extraction of a 22-1/2 pound tumor without the benefit of anesthetic, which wasn't known in the medical profession at the time. Everyone attending to Jane simply tied her down and did their best to keep her immobilized. Jane sang hymns and recited Bible verses to distract herself from the pain.

The surgery was a success, and Jane went on to live another thirty-two years, even outliving Dr. McDowell, who had died 11 years earlier. Another fascinating fact is learning Jane was up and moving three days following the surgery. When the doctor asked her what she was doing, she told him she was making her bed, and she had work to do. :) Tough woman!

Countless other stories were told of the McDowell family, including their involvement with politics, lawmaking, and notable influence for the state of Kentucky. There's even a bronze statue of Dr. McDowell in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. My mind is already buzzing with ways to incorporate this story into one of my books.

And that's all for today.


* Which choice would *you* have made? 

* Have you or anyone you know received an exploratory surgery that hadn't been performed many times? What was it? What was the result?

* How does knowledge of this surgery make you grateful for modern medicine?

** This note is for our email readers. Please do not reply via email with any comments. View the blog online and scroll down to the comments section.

Leave answers to these questions or any comments you might have on this post in the comment box below. For those of you who have stuck around this far, I'm sending a FREE autographed book to one person every month from the comments left on each of my blog posts. You never know when your comment will be a winner! Subscribe to comments so you'll know if you've won and need to get me your mailing information.

Come back on the 9th of next month for my subsequent foray into historical tidbits to share.

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Tiffany Amber Stockton has been crafting and embellishing stories since childhood, when she was accused of having a very active imagination and cited with talking entirely too much. Today, she has honed those skills to become an award-winning, best-selling author and speaker who is also a professional copywriter/copyeditor. She loves to share life-changing products and ideas with others to help improve their lives in a variety of ways.

She lives with her husband and fellow author, Stuart Vaughn Stockton, along with their two children and four cats in southeastern Kentucky. In the 20 years she's been a professional writer, she has sold twenty-six (26) books so far and is represented by Tamela Murray of the Steve Laube Agency. You can find her on Facebook and GoodReads.


  1. I would have taken the chance. John Adam's daughter had breast cancer and had surgery enduring the pain. But when it appeared in her other breast years later she refused surgery. I can't imagine how stro g our an esters had to be to bear su h pain. Yep would make a good book plot.

  2. Thank you for posting about this incredible surgery. So many things boggle my mind about this....a 22 lb. tumor! surgery without anesthesia! up 3 days after!! Life was so different then and people's mindsets were different, I honestly don't know what I would have chosen. Nowadays, I'm thankful for drugs that make you sleep during certain procedures!!