It is estimated that about 1 in very 3 babies is born via cesarean section. This now common surgical procedure used to be a death sentence for expecting mothers, but thanks to medical advancements, the mortality rate is very low in the modern world. The word, “cesarean” is derived from the Latin term caesus meaning “to cut” (“Cesarean Section History). The emergence of anesthesia and sanitation standards in the nineteenth century, along with advanced surgical techniques, resulted in a higher survival rate.

Complications:

Cesarean sections are done when a pregnancy poses a life-threatening risk to the mother or baby. A horizontal incision is made through the abdomen and uterus. The infant is removed and the abdomen shut. Historically, most c-sections were performed for one main purpose, to save the baby. Mothers were expected to die from shock or complications resulting from infection. In my posts focused on Civil War medicine I explain that most surgeons in the Victorian era rarely performed operations on the abdominal area of the body due to the high rate of failure. Without a proper understanding of germ theory and sanitation methods, chest or abdominal injuries were almost untreatable. Another very common complication involved the uterine incisions not being closed properly. Scars were subject to rupture when put under the stress of subsequent labors (“Cesarean Section History”). Max Sanger, a noteworthy German obstetrician, managed to rapidly increase survival ratings when, in 1882, he developed an arrangement of silver sutures that lowered the rate of infection and properly closed the uterus (Pickover 226). 

Image Credit: History-of-obgyn.com

His Own Wife:

One of the most famous stories involving a successful cesarean section occurred in 1794 when Dr. Jesse Bennett was forced to perform the emergency procedure on his own wife. His notes later revealed that the event with his wife and child was the first time he had managed to perform a c-section where both the mother and baby survived. Bennett was born in Frankford, Pennsylvania in 1769. He attended the University of Philadelphia as a young adult and is believed to have worked alongside Dr. Benjamin Rush for a number of years before moving to Virginia to establish his own business (Grayson).

 After marrying Elizabeth Hogg, the pair discovered that they were expecting, but the delivery would be nightmarish. After hours of exhaustive labor, the doctor overseeing Elizabeth told Bennett that he expected that she would die. The baby could not be delivered vaginally with forceps and the stress of the ordeal was weighing on his poor wife. Bennett had two options: c-section or craniotomy. During a craniotomy the skull of the baby is crushed to allow the body to pass through the birth canal. This procedure results in infant death and is still utilized today in rare instances. Bennett chose the option that he believed could save both his wife and their child. The original doctor who was overseeing left the house in a hurry and Bennett and his slaves got to work.

They created a makeshift surgical table by laying boards across two barrels. Bennett put his wife to sleep with laudanum and proceeded to carefully cut through her abdomen and uterus (Grayson). Once the baby was out, he took out her ovaries to avoid future pregnancies and sutured the wound closed using a heavy linen thread (Grayson). Thanks to his quick wit and surgical skill, Bennett lived a happy life alongside the rest of his family. It is believed that this account was one of the first successful cesarean sections performed in the United States. 

If that doesn’t make you thankful for modern medicine then I don’t know what will!

Until Next Time

N.F.

Sources:

·         “Cesarean Section History.” Birth Injury Help Center. Accessed 28 December, 2021. birthinjuryhelpcenter.org/c-section-history.html.

·         Grayson, Claire. “Jesse Bennett (1769-1842).” The Embryo Project Encyclopedia. 12 October, 2018. Accessed 28 December, 2021. embryo.asu.edu/pages/jesse-bennett-1769-1842.

Pickover, Clifford A. The Medical Book: From Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons: 250 Milestones in the History of Medicine. Sterling Publishing: NY, 2012. Print.

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