Jesse Bennett

Dr. Jesse Bennett (July 10, 1769 —July 13, 1842) was the first American physician to perform a successful Caesarean section, which he performed on his own wife at the birth of their only child on January 14, 1794.[1][2]

Dr. Jesse Bennett
Born(1769-07-13)July 13, 1769
DiedJuly 10, 1842(1842-07-10) (aged 72)
EducationPhiladelphia College
Known forPerforming the first Caesarean section in North America, in 1794.
Medical career


Early lifeEdit

Bennett was born in Frankford, Philadelphia, on July 13, 1769. He earned a B.A. Degree at Philadelphia College before apprenticing with Dr. Benjamin Rush and attending medical school. In April 1791, he received the title Doctor of Medicine, at the same time he received his M. A. degree. Dr. Bennett married Elizabeth Hogg in 1793 and settled in Rockingham County, Virginia, establishing his practice in a log cabin.[3] When Elizabeth became pregnant, Bennett engaged a Dr. Humphrey of Staunton, Virginia, to attend Elizabeth at the delivery.[3]

Caesarean sectionEdit

After Elizabeth had endured a prolonged labor, Dr. Humphrey and Bennett determined the only options were a Caesarean section on Elizabeth or a craniotomy on the unborn infant. Dr. Humphrey refused to do anything, feeling that either operation meant certain death for both the mother and her infant.[3] It appears Dr. Humphrey then left the Bennett home.

Desperate to save her child, Elizabeth begged her husband to perform the Caesarian section. Dr. Bennett assembled a crude operating table from two boards supported by barrels. Dr. Bennett gave his wife laudanum to make her sleepy and had two negro servants support her on the table while Elizabeth's sister, Mrs. Hawkins, held a tallow candle to light the makeshift operating table.[3]

Dr. Bennett cut his wife's abdomen with a single sweep of his knife and extracted his infant daughter, Maria. He then removed both of Elizabeth's ovaries, saying he'd "not be subjected to such an ordeal again."[1] Finally he sutured the surgical wound with stout linen thread, the kind used in frontier homes to sew heavy clothing.[3]

Elizabeth recovered and was able to be up a month later (see postpartum confinement). Dr. Bennett declared his wife healed as of March 1, 1794, writing a cryptic case history on the title page of one of his medical books.[4] Elizabeth Bennett lived for thirty-six more years, passing away on April 20, 1830. Maria Bennett lived until 1870, married twice, and bore six children.[3]

Dr. Bennett refused to publicize the details of the surgery during his life. He said other doctors would never believe that a woman could survive this hazardous operation, done in the backwoods of Virginia, and he was "damned if he'd give them a chance to call him a liar."[1]

Because Dr. Bennett didn't report the operation during his life, it was long believed the first successful American Caesarian section had been performed in 1827 by Dr. John Lambert in Ohio - coincidentally, only ten miles from Dr. Bennett's practice.[3]

Dr. A. L. Knight, a boyhood neighbor of the Bennetts, remembered hearing the details of Maria's birth when he was a youth. Dr. Knight collected eye-witness testimonies from Mrs. Hawkins and the surviving negro servant after Dr. Bennett's death and published the story in The Southern Historical Magazine in 1892 as part of "The Life and Times of Dr. Jesse Bennett, M.D."[3]

Later lifeEdit

Dr. Bennett became active in civic affairs in the newly formed Mason County (now Mason County, West Virginia). He was appointed Major of the Mason County Militia in 1804 and represented Mason County in the Virginia Assembly.[3]

Aaron Burr reportedly tried to enlist Dr. Bennett's help with the Burr conspiracy[3] for which Burr was charged with treason. Dr. Bennett refused to assist Aaron Burr and went on to serve the United States as an Army Surgeon in the War of 1812.[3]


Bennett's accomplishment is noted in two historical markers, one (calling him "Jessee Bennett") erected in 1983 by Virginia near the site of the operation in Edom[5] and one erected by West Virginia, in 1973, near the site of his original burial.[6] He was initially interred in the Bennett-Knopp Cemetery in Point Pleasant, West Virginia; his remains, along with those of his wife and a friend, were moved, with their original marker, to that town's Pioneer Cemetery in 1985.[7]


  1. ^ a b c "Medicine: Woman's Ills". Time. 1951.
  2. ^ Graham, Harvey (1951). Eternal Eve. Doubleday & Co.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Crickard, Madeline (1996). "The Doctor that History Almost Missed". Journal of the Allegheny Regional Ancestors (Volume 5, Issue 2 ed.).
  4. ^ Miller, Dr. (1938). Miller's Caesarian Section Annals of Medical History.
  5. ^ "Dr. Jessee Bennett—1769–1842 A-59 – Marker History". 14 January 1794. Retrieved 18 April 2017.
  6. ^ "Dr. Jesse Bennett - West Virginia Historical Markers on". Retrieved 18 April 2017.
  7. ^ "Doctor Jesse Bennett". Retrieved 18 April 2017.

Further readingEdit

  • Knight, Dr. A. L. The Life and Times of Dr. Jesse Bennett, M.D. The Southern Historical Magazine, 1892