Hysterectomy: a historical perspective

Baillieres Clin Obstet Gynaecol. 1997 Mar;11(1):1-22. doi: 10.1016/s0950-3552(97)80047-8.


In the relatively long history of man, surgery has been a comparatively recent development; the abdomen was first deliberately opened to remove an ovarian cyst by Ephraim McDowell in Kentucky in 1809. The first abdominal hysterectomy was performed by Charles Clay in Manchester, England in 1843; unfortunately the diagnosis was wrong and the patient died in the immediate post-operative period. The following year, Charles Clay was almost the first to claim a surviving patient, however she died post-operatively and it was not until 1853 that Ellis Burnham from Lowell, Massachusetts achieved the first successful abdominal hysterectomy although again the diagnosis was wrong. Vaginal hysterectomy dates back to ancient times. The procedure was performed by Soranus of Ephesus 120 years after the birth of Christ, and the many reports of its use in the middle ages were nearly always for the extirpation of an inverted uterus and the patients rarely survived. The early hysterectomies were fraught with hazard and the patients usually died of haemorrhage, peritonitis, and exhaustion. Early procedures were performed without anaesthesia with a mortality of about 70%, mainly due to sepsis from leaving a long ligature to encourage the drainage of pus. Thomas Keith from Scotland realized the danger of this practice and merely cauterized the cervical stump and allowed it to fall internally, thereby bringing the mortality down to about 8%. Hysterectomy became safer with the introduction of anaesthesia, antibiotics and antisepsis, blood transfusions and intravenous therapy. During the 1930s, Richardson introduced the total abdominal hysterectomy to avoid serosanguineous discharge from the cervical remnant and the risk of cervical carcinoma developing in the stump. Apart from this innovation, and the transverse incision introduced by Johanns Pfannenstiel in the 1920s, there was little advance in hysterectomy techniques until the advent of endoscopic surgery and the performance of the first laparoscopic hysterectomy by Harry Reich in Kingston, Pennsylvania in 1988. The refinement and increasing safety of laparoscopic hysterectomy suggests that it will be used increasingly in the future, although developments in pharmacology and photodynamic therapy and interventional radiology may reduce the traditional indications for the operation.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Portrait

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesia, General / history
  • England
  • Europe
  • Female
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Hysterectomy / history*
  • Hysterectomy, Vaginal / history
  • Laparoscopy / history
  • Ovariectomy / history