A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky by Heart: Pioneering medical contributions of McDowell known well beyond Boyle County

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

Just about anybody who has spent much time around Danville, or is a Kentucky history buff, knows a bit about Dr. Ephraim McDowell. He is credited with operating on a woman on Christmas Day, 1809, and removing a large ovarian tumor, over 20 pounds. It was the first successfully performed ovariotomy.

I’m certainly not a historian, but I enjoy reading about Kentuckians from the past. My recent interest in McDowell was stoked after first reading about the recipient of the surgery, Jane Todd Crawford, in a book published by the Kentucky Historical Society called Roadside History: A Guide to Kentucky Highway Markers (1992).

The marker mentioned was 7.5 south of Greensburg on KY 61. I haven’t checked to see if it still exists on the road there, but the inscription stated, according to the book, that the woman rode a horse 64 miles to Danville and had the operation done.

McDowell House and Apothecary (Facebook Photo)

McDowell House and Apothecary (Facebook Photo)

I am somewhat hesitant to refer to McDowell as “Dr.” because, according to my historical sources, he never received a diploma from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, after attending medical lectures there, but in 1825, 16 years after performing the operation of Crawford, he was conferred an honorary M.D. degree by the University of Maryland.

McDowell is most recognized for his pioneer work as a surgeon, but he is also noted for his influence in the Danville community and, alas, his choice of a marriage partner. He is credited with being a founder of the city’s Trinity Episcopal Church and donated the land for the first building. He was also a founding member of Centre College’s primary board of trustees.

And his wife? He married the daughter of twice Kentucky governor, Isaac Shelby. He also was a cousin of noted Kentucky suffrage leader Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, and he reportedly removed a urinary stone and repaired a hernia in 11th U.S. president James K. Polk. It seems that he had a star quality that followed him everywhere.

The reports around the pioneering surgery done on Crawford go something like this. McDowell came to her home near Greensburg to check out her medical condition. Other physicians concluded her to be “beyond term pregnant,” but McDowell diagnosed her as having an ovarian tumor.

Crawford asked him to operate and remove the tumor despite being informed that such surgery had not been successfully performed. The surgeon obliged after Crawford made the trip to Danville; the event is now chronicled as a historically significant medical achievement far outside the boundaries of Kentucky.

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood trips orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state. “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

Mrs. Crawford also offers an interesting life profile. She lived 33 years after the ovariotomy, dying in 1842. Married to Thomas Crawford while raising four children, they moved to northern Kentucky after the surgery and stayed until 1817, when they moved to Madison, Indiana. Thomas obtained much land and also represented his area in the Indiana Legislature.

He fell down cellar steps on his farm in 1821 and died. Jane passed while living with her son in Graysville, Indiana.

McDowell died in 1830 and is buried in Danville. Visitors today can take a guided tour of the beautiful McDowell House Museum and Apothecary, in downtown Danville. Nearby stands the respected Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center. In no uncertain terms, the contributions of the man are well-known and respected in the Boyle County community—and beyond.

Additionally, the Jane Todd Crawford Hospital in Greensburg today bears witness to this courageous woman.

Sources: http://www.thefullwiki.org/Ephraim_McDowell; http://www.mcdowellhouse.com/ ; and The Kentucky Encyclopedia (Kleber, 1992)

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A while back, I wrote a column about the town of Cynthiana. It focused on the stories people told about growing up there, and it got a lot of positive response from readers.

Here’s a review I wrote for Kentucky Monthly about a 2014 book by Harrison County resident Mark Mattmiller that was inspired by his growing up there. Mark’s book can be ordered online from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

There I Shall Be: Home is Kentucky
(Cloud Press 9; 2014)

Educator and farmer Mark Mattmiller is at home in the rural environs of central Kentucky, living near Cynthiana, in Harrison County. He knows the people and the land, and his passion is to write about what he terms “the lives and carrying ons of the cool, colorful, and sometimes quirky characters of the hill farm country.” In There I Shall Be: Home is Kentucky, the author pens a seven-story collection of short stories based on such.

Though he changes names of individuals and places, his authentic voice teases his immersion in the lives of real people he has known. One wonders aloud, for instance, about the connection Mattmiller has with Woody, Artie, and Peachy, who are up to mischief in a small elementary school when they conspire to sneak a live bullet into the school’s furnace. In the melancholy account of teacher Virginia Ashberry’s dehumanizing effect on a student, and later her misconstrued repentance toward the individual, the author seems to know the territory well.

“The Addition” tells of a member squabble over a building addition for a small church dominated by one family, and brings an ironic twist to the conclusion. Been there, maybe, Mark?

The book is Mattmiller’s second, following his debut, called Neighboring.

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of former Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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