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Moments in Surgical History
August 1999

Ephraim McDowell and the World's First Successful Ovariotomy

Arch Surg. 1999;134(8):902. doi:10.1001/archsurg.134.8.902

OF THE MANY magnificent stories that make up American surgical lore, one of the most renowned concerns that of Ephraim McDowell (1771-1830) and Jane Todd Crawford (1763-1842), and his performing on her, on Christmas Day 1809, the world's first successful ovariotomy. McDowell was a native Virginian who studied medicine as an apprentice under Alexander Humphreys of Staunton, Va. In 1793, McDowell traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he attended the academic sessions of 1793-1794, followed the anatomy lectures of Alexander Munro secundus (1733-1817), and studied surgery with John Bell (1763-1820). Returning to the United States in 1795, McDowell commenced practice in Danville, Ky, where he was a general practitioner and also acquired a reputation for his surgical skills. Among McDowell's more interesting surgical cases was the extraction of bladder stones from 17-year-old James Knox Polk (1795-1849), later to become president of the United States. Known to have acquired a considerable reputation in completing amputations, herniotomies, and vesicolithotomies, McDowell taught medicine to various apprentices or office pupils, including Alban Gilpin Smith (1795-1876). Smith would join McDowell as a partner from 1822 to 1826, when the former performed the third known successful ovariotomy in May 1823.

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