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Crowdsourcing Genealogy: The Tale of Jane Todd Crawford

[Editor’s note: GeneaBloggers member Joy Neighbors has undertaken quite a monumental task in making sure the story of Joan Todd Crawford – the first survivor of ovarian surgery – is told. The interview below describes her efforts, the fundraising involved via Kickstarter, and how you can help!]

How did you first get interested in the story of Jane Todd Crawford?

I discovered the grave of Jane Todd Crawford last year, when I was out researching for my cemetery blog, A Grave Interest, (

I stopped to take photos of cemetery stones when I came across a historical marker describing Jane Todd Crawford as a medical pioneer. She is the reason that not only ovarian surgery, but also abdominal surgery, became possible.

I began researching her life, but was called to Kentucky for nine months of consulting work. During free time there, I went to several cemeteries, including Danville, Kentucky. That’s where I discovered the home of Dr Ephraim McDowell, the doctor who had performed this life-saving surgery on Jane Crawford over 200 years ago. All of the pieces were just coming together – how could I not write this book?

Jane Todd Crawford had thought she was pregnant with twins, but consulted a doctor when the pregnancy went too long. Dr. Ephraim McDowell examined her and pronounced the pregnancy an ovarian tumor – a death sentence in 1809. McDowell thought he could operate, but he warned Jane that it had never been done successfully. Jane weighed her options and agreed to the experimental surgery.

Jane Crawford rode for several winter days on horseback, balancing the tumor on the saddle pommel. She arrived at McDowell’s home in Danville, Kentucky just before Christmas 1809. She underwent the operation on Christmas morning, held down by several strong men (anesthesia was not yet invented.) Outside, an angry crowd waited for the announcement she had died, so they could lynch the doctor for attempting to “play God.”

Dr. McDowell successfully removed the 22-pound tumor during a 25-minute operation. Jane was able to return home before the end of January 1810. She spent a few more years in Kentucky before moving to Indiana, where she lived for another 30 years.

Why do you feel it is important that Jane’s story be told?

It’s because of Jane’s bravery, and McDowell’s skill, that ovarian and abdominal surgery advanced forward. It was a fight to get the medical community to even consider it. Over 20 ovarian surgeries had been done by 1819, and still the medical doctors of the time felt this operation, or any abdominal surgery, was just too dangerous to do.

Why tell the story of now?

It’s over 200 years later, and ovarian cancer is still one of the top five killers of women. I want to raise awareness about this horrible, silent disease.

You’ve taken a rather creative, but increasingly popular route, to fund this project. Tell us why you’ve opted for this over more traditional publishing options and how people can participate?

I know I have everything to make this a success, except the finances. That’s why I started looking for an innovative way to finance the project. A friend told me about Kickstarter, a crowd funding site and it just made sense.

I come from a public broadcasting background so I understand pledging. This is the same thing; I’m asking you to pledge a certain amount of money in return for a reward of an equivalent or higher value. Unlike PBS, if I don’t raise the specified amount by the end of my campaign period, I don’t receive any of the money and none of the backers are charged. My financial goal to do this book includes funds for research, travel, interviews, publishing, rewards, shipping, and taxes for a total of $30,000 to be raised in 40 days.

So, it all comes down to arithmetic; 3 backers at $10,000 each, or 30 at $1,000 each, or 300 at $100 each, or 1,200 at $25 each will reach my goal. As of today, I have 25 days left to get the project fully funded.

To learn more, view the video, or back the project, just go to

What do you hope to find when you finish telling Jane’s story? What do you hope your readers will discover?

I will be thrilled to finally tell Jane’s story and help people become more aware of ovarian cancer. There are statues, monuments, a park, a museum, hospitals, all named after Dr. McDowell. But Jane and her story are disappearing from history. She’s just a name now, not a person. I cannot imagine how she traveled that far in the winter, in that much pain to undergo this surgery. Nor can I begin to conceive how she laid down on that operating table, knowing she would feel the cut of the knife, the sounds of the surgery, the doctor calling for assistance, the angry crowd shouting outside. And she had no idea if she’d live through it!

I want people to recognize that Jane Todd Crawford made that decision to take a life or death chance, and that her courage made abdominal and ovarian surgery possible for the generations to come. She truly was a medical pioneer and her story needs to be told.

©2012, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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