Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dr. Ephraim McDowell and his Christmas Miracle in 1809.

The Christian world celebrates December 25 as a day of miracles. They view it as a miracle because the baby Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary.  The story will be told over and over again by song and sermon over the Christmas holidays. This first Christmas miracle occurred in Bethlehem. Let me tell you about a first miracle that occurred on the wild frontier of America in Motley’s Glen, 60 miles southwest of Danville, Kentucky, in 1809.

Mrs. Jane Todd Crawford, a second cousin of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, was already the mother of four and another physician had told her she was pregnant again with twins. Finally, after a long delay, word was sent to Dr. Ephraim McDowell whose office was in Danville. On horseback, he made the 60 mile journey to Motley’s Glen. She was not pregnant but had a large tumor. He told her that no medication would cause the tumor to disappear, the tumor would continue to grow, and that the only relief was an operation to remove the tumor. He continued, “I have never removed such a tumor, nor do I know of any doctor who has. I told the lady I could do her no good. That opening the abdomen to extract the tumor was inevitable death. But not standing with this, if she thought herself prepared to die, I would take the lump from her.”

After the brutally honest consultation with Mrs. Crawford, he said he would perform surgery if she could make the journey to his office.  A few days later Mrs. Crawford arrived by horseback and after resting several days, the surgery was scheduled.

Christmas Day was chosen because most people would be in church and there would be fewer spectators. Not everyone was in favor of the surgery but the story of a mob ready to hang the doctor is probably not correct. Because there was nothing else Mrs. Crawford could be given, she swallowed an oral dose of opium and several attendants stood by to help hold her down. It would be another 35 years before anesthesia would come to the field of medicine.

Before the surgery Dr. McDowell wrote out a prayer which he placed it in his pocket: 

“Almighty God be with me, I humbly beseech Thee in this attendance in Thy holy hour; give me becoming awe of Thy presence, and grant me Thy direction and aid. I beseech Thee, that in confessing I may be humble and truly penitent in prayer, serious and devout and praises, grateful and sincere, and in hearing Thy word attentive and willing and desirous to be instructed. Direct me, Oh! God, in performing this operation, for I am but an instrument in Thy hands and I am but Thy servant and if it is Thy will, Oh! Spare this poor afflicted woman. Oh! Give me true faith in the atonement of Thy Son, Jesus Christ, or a love sufficient to procure Thy favor and blessing, that worshiping Thee in Spirit and in Truth my services may be accepted through this all – sufficient merit.”

During the painful surgery, Mrs. Crawford sang hymns and quoted from the Psalms. Five days after removing a 22.5 pound ovarian tumor, she was up making her own bed. It was an uncomplicated recovery and 25 days later she returned to Motley’s Glen on horseback.  Mrs. Jane Todd Crawford lived for 32 more years - 12 years longer than Dr. McDowell. There is a statue to Dr. McDowell located in the National Statuary Hall collection in the U.S. Capital. It was donated in 1929 and the sculptor was Charles H. Niehaus.

It was the first successful removal of an ovarian tumor in the world - a miracle on Christmas day in the wilderness of America more than 200 years ago.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew's Society


The next meeting of the Scottish American History Club will be January 7, 2012.

1 comment:

  1. Mrs Crawford and Dr McDowell must have been so grateful for their Christmas miracle :-)