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On Christmas Day in 1809 in Danville, a thousand miles from the nearest hospital and 35 years before the development of anesthesia, Dr. Ephraim McDowell (1771-1830) removed a ovarian tumor from the abdomen of a Kentucky woman.
It was the world's first ovariotomy and it eventually brought McDowell worldwide acclaim as the father of abdominal surgery.
L. Henry Dowell will portray McDowell in a Kentucky Chautauqua performance at the Green County Public Library on Monday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. ET.
Dowell is artistic director of Harrodsburg's Ragged Edge Theater. A graduate of Morehead State University, Dowell has extensive experience as an actor and director.
His appearance is sponsored by the Green County Public Library and the Kentucky Humanities Council.
McDowell was born in Virginia. His father moved to Kentucky at the request of President George Washington to settle land claim deeds. At 16, Ephraim apprenticed under the noted Virginia physician Alexander Humphreys, then studied with the celebrated surgeon John Bell in Scotland. Returning to Danville in 1795, McDowell soon earned a reputation as an accomplished anatomist and surgeon.
In 1809, he met Jane Todd Crawford, a 46-year-old woman suffering from an ovarian tumor. He recalled telling her that "if she thought herself prepared to die, I would take the lump from her if she could come to Danville."
Eminent surgeons said opening the abdomen meant certain death. McDowell and Crawford both understood that the operation was an experiment, and her only hope of survival.
While Crawford sang hymns to distract herself from the pain, the surgeon, assisted by his nephew, removed a tumor weighing just more than 22 pounds. Five days later, he found Crawford standing, making her bed. In less than a month, she was on her way home. She lived another 32 years.
McDowell's boldness, nurtured perhaps by the spirit of the frontier, had saved Crawford's life and paved the way for surgeries that have since saved untold numbers of lives.
Dowell's performance is an exclusive presentation of the Kentucky Humanities Council with statewide support from the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels and regional funding from the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government, People's Bank & Trust Co. of Hazard, National City banks in Lexington and London, the Brown-Forman Corp., Union College in Barbourville and Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America Inc.
For more information, visit www.kyhumanities.org.