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Gift Honors Surgery that Saved Joseph Smith’s Leg

Descendants of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, have created a scholarship at the Geisel School of Medicine to honor and give thanks for a pioneering surgery that Dartmouth’s Dr. Nathan Smith performed on young Joseph.

By Nancy Fontaine

Two hundred years ago, a surgeon in rural New Hampshire saved a young boy’s leg and possibly his life. This was no ordinary treatment, however. The surgeon was Dr. Nathan Smith, founder of Dartmouth’s medical school; the child was Joseph Smith, who later founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and the surgery was far ahead of its time.

Dr. Nathan Smith, founder of Dartmouth's medical school
Dr. Nathan Smith, founder of Dartmouth's medical school

“We have always been grateful to Dr. Nathan Smith for the miraculous surgery,” said Daniel Adams, a member of the Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith Family Association. “We felt it appropriate on the 200th anniversary of that surgery to offer a gift of gratitude to the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.”

The organization, named in honor of Joseph Smith’s parents, is donating $25,000 to create Joseph Smith’s Miracle Surgery Scholarship for medical students. The money was raised through a 5K run and celebration that the group organized in 2013. Representatives of the group will present the check to the school on September 11.

“We are proud to have a founder as visionary and transformative as Dr. Nathan Smith,” said Duane Compton, PhD, Interim Dean of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth (formerly Dartmouth Medical School). “This generous gift in honor of Dr. Smith and the incredible surgery he performed on young Joseph Smith provides us the opportunity to remember an important part of our medical school’s history. Two hundred years later, we remain as committed as ever to training future physicians and caring for our community."

“I cannot think of a better way to use the money raised than for the Joseph Smith’s Miracle Scholarship,” said David Longcope, MD, who is the great-great-great-great grandson of Nathan Smith and who participated in the fundraiser, which took place in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Surgical Success

Joseph Smith was seven years old in 1813 when an epidemic of typhoid fever ravaged Lebanon, NH, including his family. Joseph recovered from the fever but developed osteomyelitis—an infection of the bone—in his left leg. A group of doctors from Dartmouth consulted on the case, and their first recommendation was the standard treatment of the time: amputation.

Special Lecture Event:

“A Miracle Explained: The Joseph Smith Surgery by Dr. Nathan Smith, Founder of Dartmouth Medical School” --  A talk by Le Roy S. Wirthlin, MD

In 1813, Dr. Nathan Smith performed a pioneering surgery on a young boy named Joseph Smith, whose family was living in Lebanon, NH. The surgery, which saved Joseph’s leg and possibly his life, would not become commonplace for 100 years. Joseph Smith made a full recovery and went on to found the Mormon Church. Dr. Wirthlin, a retired surgeon, has spent years researching this historical event and is widely regarded as an expert on the topic.

Date:  September 11, 2015

Time:  7:00 pm

Location:  Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of Hanover and Lebanon. New Hampshire Wards building, 667 Dartmouth College Highway, Lebanon, NH 03766-2044

Desperate to avoid losing the leg, the family opted instead for an innovative surgery practiced by Nathan Smith, who had founded Dartmouth Medical School in 1797 and was still teaching there in 1813. The procedure Smith developed was not widely adopted until World War I. During the operation, Smith drilled out pieces of diseased bone from the boy’s leg—without anesthesia or antiseptic techniques, which were not yet common.

Although Joseph Smith used a crutch for three years and limped thereafter, his leg healed well and supported him for the rest of his life.

“Even today that would still be considered a very successful result,” said Dr. LeRoy Wirthlin, a retired vascular surgeon who has researched and written about the historical event. Wirthlin will give a brief lecture on the surgery on September 11, at 7:00 p.m., at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of Hanover and Lebanon. The public is welcome.

“We are grateful to Dartmouth College for preserving the legacy of this great surgeon and are pleased to make this modest donation to Dartmouth’s medical school in Dr. Nathan Smith’s honor,” added M. Russell Ballard, co-chairman of the Board of Trustees of Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith Family Association.