Gift Honors Surgery That Saved Religious Leader’s Leg

Compiled by Aimee Caruso

Hanover — Descendants of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, have created a scholarship at Geisel School of Medicine to honor a surgery that Dartmouth’s Dr. Nathan Smith performed on Joseph Smith two centuries ago.

Joseph Smith and his family were living in Lebanon when an epidemic of typhoid fever ravaged the town in 1812 and 1813, and he and his siblings contracted the disease. Joseph Smith, then 7, 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 amputation, the standard treatment of the time.

Desperate for him to avoid losing the leg, the family opted instead for an innovative surgery practiced by Nathan Smith, no relation to Joseph 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, Geisel said in a news release.

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, Geisel said.

“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 event.

The Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith Family Association, named in honor of Joseph Smith’s parents, is donating $25,000 to create Joseph Smith’s Miracle Surgery Scholarship for medical students.

“We have always been grateful to Dr. Nathan Smith for the miraculous surgery,” said Daniel Adams, a member of the 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 money was raised through a 5K run and celebration that the association organized in 2013.