Medical Terminology Daily (MTD) is a blog sponsored by Clinical Anatomy Associates, Inc. as a service to the medical community. We post anatomical, medical or surgical terms, their meaning and usage, as well as biographical notes on anatomists, surgeons, and researchers through the ages. Be warned that some of the images used depict human anatomical specimens.

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A Moment in History

Jean-Louis Petit

Jean Louis Petit
(1674 – 1750)

French surgeon and anatomist, Jean Louis Petit was born in Paris in on March 13, 1674.  His family rented an apartment at his house to Alexis Littre (1658 – 1726), a French anatomist. Petit became an apprentice of Littre at seven years of age, helping him in the dissections for his lectures and at an early age became the assistant in charge of the anatomic amphitheater.

Because of Petit’s dedication to anatomy and medicine, in 1690 at the age of sixteen, became a disciple of a famous Paris surgeon, Castel.

In 1692, Petit entered the French army and performed surgery in two military campaigns. By 1693 he started delivering lectures and was accepted as a great surgeon, being invited to the most difficult operations.  In 1700 he was appointed Chief Surgeon of the Military School in Paris and in the same year he received the degree of Master of Surgery from the Faculty of Paris.

In 1715 he was made a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences and an honorary member of the Royal Society of London. He was appointed by the King as the first Director General of the Royal Academy of Surgery when it was founded in 1731.

Petit’s written works are of historical importance.  “Traite des Maladies des Os” ( A Treatise on Bone Diseases);  “Traite des Maladies Chirurgicales et des Operation” (A Treatise on Surgical Diseases and their Operations” This last book was published posthumously in 1774. He also published a monograph on hemorrhage, another on lachrymal fistula, and others.

He was one of the first to perform choIecystotomy and mastoidotomy. His original tourniquet design for amputations saved many in the battlefield and the design of the same surgical instrument today has not changed much since its invention by him.

His name is remembered in the lumbar triangle, also called the "triangle of Petit", and the abdominal hernia that can ensue through that area of weakness, the lumbar hernia or "Petit's hernia".

1. “Jean Louis Petit – A Sketch of his Life, Character, and Writings” Hayne, AP San Fran Western Lancet 1875 4: 446-454
2. “Oeuvres compl?tes de Jean-Louis Petit” 1837 Imprimerie de F. Chapoulaud
3. Extraits de l'eloge de Jean-Louis Petit Ius dans Ia seance publique de I' Academie royale de chirurgie du 26 mai 1750” Louis A. Chirurgie 2001: 126 : 475- 81

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Ephraim McDowell

This article is part of the series "A Moment in History" where we honor those who have contributed to the growth of medical knowledge in the areas of anatomy, medicine, surgery, and medical research.

Ephraim McDowell
Ephraim McDowell

Ephraim McDowell (1771- 1830). American surgeon, Ephraim McDowell was born in 1771 in the Augusta County of Virginia. His family moved to the “frontier”, which at that time was Kentucky, where his father was a judge. McDowell studied in Kentucky and returned to Virginia to serve as an apprentice to Dr. Alexander Humphreys. Following Dr. Humphrey’s advice McDowell went to Edinburgh to finish his formal medical training, which he did not finish, taking chemistry, anatomy, and then a private medical course with Dr. John Bell.

Returning to America, he settled in the Ohio River Valley, and had a successful practice as a frontier surgeon in the city of Danville, Kentucky.  This was before the advent of anesthesia and antisepsis.

On Christmas Day 1809, Dr. McDowell  performed the first recorded ovariotomy to drain a massive ovarian cyst from Mrs. Mary Jane Crawford, who had to ride a horse for sixty miles to get to Dr. McDowell’s office where he performed the ovariotomy without anesthesia. Mrs. Crawford had been diagnosed as “pregnant” by two other physicians. Dr. McDowell’s hand-written report states that he performed a nine-inch abdominal incision, the operation lasted about twenty five minutes, and they removed “fifteen pounds of a dirty gelatinous substance” and “extracted the sac, which weighed seven and a half pounds”. 

Mrs. Crawford survived the operation, was ambulatory in five days, and lived for 33 additional years, until she was 78 years old. Research has been made as to the reason for the survival at a time when the norm for an operation that penetrated the peritoneal cavity was death. Othersen (2004) states that his research indicated that Dr. McDowell was “meticulous, neat and scrupulously clean”.

Because of the times, and because Dr. McDowell was not into writing, the achievement was not known for many years, until 1817. Dr. McDowell later performed a lithotomy on James Polk, who would eventually become president of the United States. In 1825, his achievements were recognized and he received an honorary MD degree by the University of Maryland.

Dr. McDowell’s house in Danville, KY is today a museum, and his name is remembered by the “Ephraim McDowell Health System” a group of integrated healthcare based in the same city. For more information on Mary Jane Crawford, click here.

PERSONAL NOTE: On February 19, 2017 I was able to go visit this place. Click here for a series of articles and pictures of this visit. Dr. Miranda

1. “Ephraim McDowell (1771-1830) Kentucky Surgeon” JAMA. 1963;186 (9):861-862
2. “Ephraim McDowell: The Qualities of a Good Surgeon” Othersen, HB Ann Surg. 2004; 239(5): 648–650
3. “Ephraim McDowell (1771-1830): pioneer of ovariotomy” Tan,SY & Wong, C. Singapore Med J 2005; 46(1) : 4
4. “Ephraim McDowell, the First Ovariotomy, and the Birth of Abdominal Surgery” Horn, L and Johnson, DH. J Clin Onco 2010: 28; 7 1262-1268
5. "Surgeon of the wilderness: Ephraim McDowell" Haggard, WD. Presidential Address, ACS 1933. FACS archives 1934, 58: 415-4198
Image in Public Domain. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.