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Medicine: Woman’s Ills

3 minute read

Jesse Bennett’s wife was having a difficult labor. She thought she was going to die and asked for a Caesarean operation in the hope that her child, at least, might be saved. The doctor attending her refused. But Jesse Bennett was a physician himself. He put his wife to sleep with a whopping dose of laudanum. She lay on planks set across two barrels. One sweep of the knife laid open the abdomen and soon a baby girl was extracted. Before he closed the incision, Dr. Bennett removed both ovaries, remarking that he “would not be subjected to such an ordeal again.”

That was on Jan. 14, 1794. Mrs. Bennett recovered quickly and her daughter flourished. But for many years, Dr. Bennett made no report of this, the first successful Caesarean operation in the U.S. For, said he, other doctors would never believe that a woman could survive this hazardous operation, done in the backwoods of Virginia, and he was “damned if he’d give them a chance to call him a liar.”

Psalms for Courage. It was just such bold medical pioneering in a pioneer land that led to the specialized medical art of gynecology, says British Author Harvey Graham in Eternal Eve (Doubleday; $10). Caesarean section itself,* performed on dead or dying women, was already as old as the Pyramids. The first known Caesarean which did not kill the mother was done in 1500 by Jacob Nufer, a Swiss sow-gelder, on his own wife. In the three centuries after Nufer, European doctors tried rarely (and usually with fatal results) the operation which Dr. Bennett dared and did so well.

Next of the “backwoods obstetricians” to win Graham’s praise was Ephraim McDowell of Danville, Ky. In 1809, he persuaded Jane Todd Crawford, 47 (and a cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln), to travel 60 miles on horseback to his surgery, though she was very ill. Lacking anesthesia, Jane Crawford kept up her courage by repeating the Psalms while Dr. McDowell made surgical history with the first ovariotomy — and removed a 15-lh. ovarian cyst.

Doctor or Witch-Doctor. Oddly enough, the author who has put these incidents in perspective in a monumental (700-page) history of gynecology and obstetrics is no specialist in the field, but a medical journalist. Isaac Harvey Flack won a license to practice medicine in Manchester when he was only 21. Soon he joined the staff of the British Medical Journal, which he now edits along with a popular journal for laymen, Family Doctor. To avoid any charge of self-advertisement, Flack uses the pen-name “Harvey Graham.”

Now 39, Graham has a literary touch as deft as a surgeon’s. “To call an obstetrician to an obstructed labor in a modern maternity hospital may seem very different from calling in a witch-doctor to primeval hut,” he says. “The words and the rites . . . have become more specialized, as has the method of payment. The occasion, however, has not altered at all and for that matter the obstetrician has not much more idea than the shaman why that particular child should try to be born sideways.”

* Contrary to common belief, Julius Caesar was born the normal way. The operation got its name because Roman law, which became Lex Caesare, required it to be performed as a last resort. Most noted Caesarean offspring in fact: Scipio Africanus. In fiction: Macduff.

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