The First Ovariotomy by George Kasson Knapp

The First Ovariotomy
Oil on Canvas
George Kasson Knapp, 1877-78
Gift of Mrs. George Palmer, c. 1920

The First Ovariotomy is a oil painting by the artist George Kasson Knapp. The scene is set in Danville, Kentucky on Christmas Day in 1809. Depicted in this painting is Dr. Ephraim McDowell, as he begins an operation to remove a 22 pound ovarian tumor from the abdomen of Mrs. Jane Todd Crawford!  Dr. McDowell has made the incision and is probing Mrs. Crawford’s abdomen for the tumor.  With his attention concentrated at the ends of his fingers, Dr. McDowell has a far off look.  Upon the table, foreshortened, with her head to the observer, lies Mrs. Crawford.  Conducted several years before the common use of anesthesia, Mrs. Crawford is enduring severe pain.  Prone upon the table, she is depicted with suppressed, intense, mental emotion.  A gray-haired man is gently pressing her back upon the pillow, holding also her extended right forearm.  Dr. James McDowell, Ephraim’s assistant, stands opposite the surgeon and is handling the instruments and sponges.  At the foot of the operating table stands a medical student observing the procedure.  An African-American servant or slave is entering the room carrying a vessel of water.  Dr. McDowell successfully completed this dangerous operation in 25 minutes, and it marked the first time that this medical procedure had been effectively accomplished, affording Mrs. Crawford a full thirty-three years to live thereafter!

Despite his lack of knowledge regarding anesthetics and the need for practicing sterile methods, Dr. Ephraim McDowell was a pioneer in the beginning of abdominal surgery in the United States. Dr. McDowell has received prominence through a commemorative stamp and television program. He is also the great, great grandfather of the late Mary McDowell Reynolds, wife of the late James A. Reynolds, a former member of the board of directors of OHA. Mrs. George Palmer, the artist’s daughter, gave the painting to OHA about 1920.

The artist, George Kasson Knapp, was one of the earliest local painters from Syracuse, N.Y.  He began painting in Syracuse about 1832, later moving to New York City where he became a known artist. Mr. Knapp followed the old school style of painting, but described himself as a realistic painter. Along with Sanford Thayer, Knapp was invited by George Fisk Comfort to assist in founding the College of Fine Arts at Syracuse University. Knapp served as honorary professor at the college and eventually started the Knapp Art Gallery there.

In 1877, Knapp conceived the idea of becoming an historical painter, and began to depict The First Ovariotomy.  He carefully researched the history of the case and was able to execute an accurate representation of the landmark operation. Upon its completion in the spring, 1878, the painting was exhibited at the convention of the National Association of Physicians at Buffalo, NY, eliciting praise from both doctors and artists.