While many people think of a cesarean section as a fairly modern medical innovation, depictions of C-sections can be found in Greek mythology, ancient Chinese art, and folklore from across the globe.
The procedure — whose etymology comes from the Roman name Caesar (though not the ruler Julius, as is commonly believed), itself derived from the Latin word caedere, “to cut” — is hundreds of years old. But it wasn't until relatively recently that it became a safe, effective way to prevent birth injuries like cerebral palsy.
For most of its history, doctors only performed a C-section when the mother was likely to die, or deceased already, as a last resort to save the baby.
Here in America, that began to change on this day, January 14, in 1794, in a log cabin in the woods of Rockingham County, Virginia. Jesse Bennett, a man who some historians believe studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, was pressed into action when his wife Elizabeth’s baby would not come.
After trying and failing to deliver the infant via forceps, Jesse and the attending doctor, Alexander Humphreys, disagreed on the best course of action. Dr. Humphreys refused to attempt a C-section because the mother rarely survived. Jesse, undeterred, proceeded without him.
C-Section by Candlelight
Jesse, his sister-in-law Nancy Hawkins, and his slaves laid a set of planks across a pair of barrels to form a makeshift operating table. Jesse then gave Elizabeth a heavy dose of laudanum, a powerful opiate, to knock her out.
With Nancy holding a candle to light the procedure, Jesse used a knife to widen the opening in Elizabeth’s uterus and withdraw the baby, a girl. He then removed the placenta and the ovaries, so his wife could not become pregnant again. Jesse sewed Elizabeth up with a heavy linen thread typically reserved for making clothes.
Miraculously, both Elizabeth and her daughter, Maria, survived. According to historian Dorothy Poling, Jesse wrote in his journal that Elizabeth was up and walking again a month after the delivery, and fully healed two weeks after that. She would go on to live another 42 years.
Jesse never reported the C-section to any medical journals, perhaps because he thought they would doubt the veracity of his claims, considering the less-than-sterile conditions under which he’d carried out the procedure. So when an Ohio man named John Lambert Richmond successfully performed a cesarean section in 1827, and did report it to the medical community, he was hailed as an obstetric pioneer (and in some circles, still is).
It wasn’t until nearly 100 years after Elizabeth Bennett’s C-section that Jesse Bennett’s breakthrough came to light. At some point a neighbor, Aquila Leighton Knight, had interviewed Nancy and the slaves who had assisted with the procedure, taking copious notes. Knight then wrote a biography of Jesse Bennett, “The Life and Times of Dr. Jesse Bennett, M.D.,” which The Southern Historical Magazine published in 1892, 50 years after Jesse’s death.
The Perils of Not Performing a C-Section
Today, C-sections make up almost one-third of births in the U.S., and the mortality rate is only 5.8-6.1 per 100,000 operations. Unfortunately, there are still many instances when a doctor should perform a cesarean section but doesn’t, and a birth injury occurs as a result.
For example, if a doctor improperly or aggressively uses forceps to extract a baby, they may injure the infant, which can lead to cerebral palsy or another condition.
If your child was injured during delivery, medical negligence may be to blame, and you could be eligible for compensation.
To learn more, contact Sokolove Law today for a free, no-obligation consultation. We have registered nurses on staff who can listen to your story and help you understand what may have happened.