A pioneer among pioneers

The details of Jane Todd Crawford’s life remain a bit sketchy. One characteristic seems certain, though.

“She was a tough, tough lady.”

That’s the general consensus, put into words by Lauren Clontz, assistant director of the McDowell House Museum in Danville, Ky. The historic building was the home of Dr. Ephraim McDowell and the place where he removed a 221/2-pound ovarian tumor from the abdomen of Crawford.

The story seems incredible, two centuries later.

Crawford underwent the surgery in 1809, before the advent of anesthesia. Thus, she was awake throughout the 25-minute procedure in an upstairs bedroom of McDowell’s residence on Christmas Day. She’d ridden 60 miles on horseback through the frontier wilderness of Kentucky in December to reach the doctor’s house, balancing her obtrusive tumor on the pommel of the saddle during the ride. Then 46 years old, Crawford had to leave behind her husband, Thomas, to tend to their four kids.

And she lived, another 32 years. Crawford spent her final years in Sullivan County, Ind., near Graysville. She died March 30, 1842, and was buried in Johnson Cemetery, which Indiana 63 runs alongside. Her gravesite at Johnson Cemetery features a highway historical marker, a plaque and a monument, all explaining her fascinating saga.

“It’s pretty stunning what she did, and I can’t imagine what she went through,” said Joy Neighbors, a Wabash Valley writer who researched Crawford’s life.

McDowell etched himself into medical record books. The procedure was not only the first ovariotomy, but also the first abdominal surgery. McDowell performed 13 ovariotomies in his career. Eight were successes, four patients died and one surgery was stopped because of adhesions, according to a 2010 report in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. McDowell operated on President James K. Polk, then a teen, removing urinary stones. Once the subject of skepticism in medical circles, McDowell eventually received recognition as “the father of abdominal surgery.” September is National Ovarian Cancer Awareness month, and although Crawford’s case involved a benign tumor, her physician is remembered as a pioneer in oncology.

Courage and care

“When the courageous Ephraim McDowell of Kentucky performed his first removal of a large ovarian tumor in 1809, he was an oncologist, although he probably had never heard the word,” the Journal of Clinical Oncology report said.

A hospital, an assisted living facility, a wellness center and various properties in Danville, Ky., bear McDowell’s name. A statue of McDowell stands in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington, D.C.

“He took a beating for doing this [first ovariotomy], but eventually he took his place in history,” Neighbors said. “But Jane just kind of disappeared.”

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