Little Bits of History

Appendectomy

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 27, 2011

Appendix before and after

April 27, 1887: George Thomas Morton performs the first successful appendectomy in the United States. He saved the life of a 26-year-old man stricken with an inflamed appendix or appendicitis. George was the son of Dr. Morton who introduced anesthesia to the US in 1846 (see March 30).

The appendix is usually about the size and shape of one’s little finger, although it can be longer. The longest on record was measured as 9.2 inches and found during surgery on a Pakistani man in 2003. The appendix is located at the cecum, part of the colon. It serves no known function. It is a vestigial structure, meaning that it is a holdover from our historic past.

The appendix can become inflamed for a variety of reasons and the infection can spread to the wall of the organ. If the appendix bursts or ruptures, the infection can spread to the entire abdominal cavity and cause serious illness or even death. There is no definitive test for appendicitis, but “rebound tenderness” which is pain caused when pressure is released from the right, lower quadrant of the abdomen is indicative of the problem. Surgery to remove the appendix can be via a McBurney incision or more recently via a laparoscopic procedure. In the latter, several puncture wounds are made and a camera and light are used to put images on a TV screen while instruments are used to excise the organ via other portals.

Dr. Morton, following in his father’s footsteps, became a doctor in 1856 and took up the field of surgery. He was active in the Civil War both as a surgeon and as a gifted administrator. After the war, he founded many hospitals in Pennsylvania. He was also on the boards of many worthwhile organizations such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Pennsylvanian Society for the Restriction of Vivisection. He was a prolific writer on many topics that included the proper methodology for blood transfusions. He continued with many other interests and even today there are people with a foot neuralgia that are diagnosed as having a Morton’s neuroma, named for the doctor.

“In nothing do men more nearly approach the gods than in giving health to men.” – Cicero

“Restore a man to his health, his purse lies open to thee.” – Robert Burton

“I learned a long time ago that minor surgery is when they do the operation on someone else, not you.” – Bill Walton

“Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit – Life!” – Emily Dickinson

Also on this day:
Sultana – In 1865 the steamship Sultana has a boiler explode.
John Milton – In 1667, Paradise Lost was purchased for £5.

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