Dr. Evan O'Neill Kane: The surgeon who operated on himself three times

Surgeons are usually exceptional people, but this doctor set a new standard. He put his medical knowledge and prestige to the test by operating on himself, wielding a scalpel.

 Illustration of an operating theater from the early 20th century (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Illustration of an operating theater from the early 20th century
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

History is full of doctors who have gone very far in the name of science. Some have performed horrible, unethical experiments on people, while others have experimented on themselves.

Surgeon and physician Dr. Evan O'Neill Kane was an interesting person who performed various surgeries on himself to prove that they could be done without general anesthesia.

Kane, born April 6, 1861 in Darby, Pennsylvania, became chief surgeon at Kane Summit Hospital where he worked for most of his career. Kane was a big believer in the use of general anesthesia only when there was no choice, given the risk of using it and the potential complications of losing consciousness, such as coma or death.

To prove that it was not always needed, he underwent surgery for the first time in 1919 during which he removed one of his fingers that needed to be amputated due to infection.

In 1921, he had to undergo a much more serious operation to remove his appendix. Before his own surgery, he had performed over 4000 appendectomies and decided it was more practical and safer to do them under local anesthesia. It was something he didn’t dare try to prove about his patients, but now he had a volunteer - himself.

 Surgical equipment from the early 20th century (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Surgical equipment from the early 20th century (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On February 15, 1921, Kane rested himself on pillows and put up mirrors so that the surgeon, i.e. himself, could get a good look at the situation during the surgery. Kane injected himself with novocaine, cut himself, tied off certain blood vessels and began looking for his appendix. He reportedly chatted and laughed throughout the surgery, and managed to remove his appendix before the wound was closed by his brother (also a surgeon), who had been observing the surgery.

Surprisingly, or not, two surgeries weren’t enough for him. In 1932 at age 70 he operated on himself because of an inguinal hernia he developed after a horse ride. During this complicated operation he continued to laugh and joke, even as he approached important and critical blood vessels with his surgical tools.

When the time came to perform the most dangerous part of the surgery, threading a suture under his abdominal muscle within millimeters of important blood vessels, he stopped joking to mention "the risk is here and I have to deal with it", before successfully completing the surgery with minimal help from other surgeons gathered around him. 

Despite all his successes, Kane failed to prevent the most tragic death in his life. In May 1893 he married Blanche Rupert, who gave birth to their first son, in March 1894. Blanche died 13 days later, possibly from an infection, a common postpartum complication at this time. Three years later, Kane married his late wife's sister Lila, with whom he had six more children, including twins.