In Danville, the McDowell House Museum is a monument to an era when Kentucky was still part of the American frontier. Built in the 1790s and early 1800s, the house was the home and office of Dr. Ephraim McDowell, a physician who earned his place in medical history alongside one remarkable patient in 1809.
McDowell studied medicine in Scotland and other parts of Europe, and brought his expertise to a region where it was in need, choosing to build his practice and his life in Danville.
“Dr. McDowell’s most famous patient was Jane Todd Crawford,” says Linda Porter, Garden Manager for the McDowell House Museum. “She lived over by what today is Green County. Jane believed she was pregnant; she was very, very large in her stomach…Pioneer women had a baby about every two years, so nothing unusual there. Everyone thought she was going to have twins because she was very large.
“She had a lot of pain and believed it was time for the twins to be born,” Porter continues. “She would have taken to her bed and a local doctor was called in.”
The local doctor, in this case, lived 60 miles away. Dr. McDowell came by horseback to Crawford’s home and very quickly determined that his patient was not pregnant at all; she had a very large abdominal tumor.
Dr. McDowell told Crawford that he could attempt the operation, but she would have to come to his home for the surgery and remain there for the duration of her recovery. That would mean Crawford would have to travel 60 miles through unsettled land in the dead of winter with a belly distended by a heavy, painful tumor.
“He made the big step when he said, ‘If you come, I’ll do it,’” says physician Charles Martin. “I would like to have seen the look on his face weeks later when he answered the knock on his door, and there she was. He must have said, ‘Oh Lord, what have I gotten myself into?’”
Dr. McDowell was true to his word, and he performed the operation, which he later documented in a case report. According to his writing, he removed 15 pounds of what he described as “a dirty, gelatinous-looking substance.” The tumor was so large that it couldn’t be removed at once; the doctor removed an additional mass that weighed 7 ½ pounds.
Dr. McDowell went on to write that, five days later, he was astonished to see his patient up on her feet, making her bed. She remained in recovery in Danville for 25 days, and then took the long journey home in good health. In Dr. McDowell’s report, written eight years after the surgery, he reported that Crawford remained in good health to that day.
“He could not have performed this operation without having his training in Edinburgh,” says writer Glen Taul. “McDowell was well prepared to perform such an operation on Jane Todd Crawford as he did. Danville was lucky. Jane Todd Crawford was lucky to have him here where he was at that time.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life #2518, which originally aired on July 11, 2020. Watch the full episode.