“Joseph Smith’s Leg Surgery,” Church History Topics
“Joseph Smith’s Leg Surgery”
When a major typhoid outbreak struck New England between 1811 and 1814, the Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith family was living at its epicenter. All seven children caught the disease, with Joseph Smith Jr. and his older sister, Sophronia, most severely affected. Because of a timely surgical procedure a local surgeon had pioneered, young Joseph survived and avoided losing his left leg.1
Several months before the surgery, Joseph and his siblings suffered terrible fevers due to typhoid. The infection first caused an abscess in Joseph’s shoulder and soon afflicted his left leg bone, bringing extreme inflammation. Three weeks of fierce pain agonized the seven-year-old boy. His mother, Lucy, remembered him crying out, “Oh Father . . . the pain is so severe how can I bear it[?]” Dr. Stone, a surgeon from Hanover, New Hampshire, tended to the leg, making an eight-inch incision between the ankle and knee, hoping to reduce the swelling. Lucy watched her son worsen, the pain becoming “as severe as ever.”2 Joseph’s brother Hyrum sometimes sat with him and applied pressure to his leg to relieve the pain.
Doctor Nathan Smith, founder of nearby Dartmouth Medical College, visited the family with several other surgeons, likely a group of his medical students.3 They soberly recommended amputating the infected leg. Dr. Smith may have suggested amputation to prepare Joseph and his family to consent to an experimental surgery, a risky procedure developed by Dr. Smith 15 years earlier. The surgery entailed cutting directly into the bone and removing its infected areas, allowing healthy tissue to grow back in their place. Lucy and Joseph Jr. agreed to the surgery.
Lucy recalled her son refusing sedatives and cords to bind him to a bed, asking instead for his father to hold him and for his mother to leave the room. Dr. Smith removed nine large pieces of infected bone, and fourteen other fragments worked their way out of Joseph’s leg before it finished healing. Recovery took years. When his family moved to New York four years later, Joseph still used crutches, and he carried a slight limp into adulthood. The surgery placed a financial burden on the Smith family as they struggled for years to pay down the medical bills.
Nevertheless, the surgery itself was exceptional. Nathan Smith lived just miles from the Smith family and was possibly the only surgeon in the United States in 1813 capable of saving Joseph’s leg. He later published the procedures for his surgical method, but the operation demanded such skill that physicians did not widely adopt it until after World War I.
Lucy Mack Smith’s account of the surgery attracts interest as one of the few stories on record of Joseph Smith’s early childhood. Written nearly three decades later and after Lucy had embraced ideals of the U.S. temperance movement against alcohol, her account emphasizes Joseph’s refusal to take liquor for pain. In addition, the account highlights the trauma she endured as her son suffered through the potentially fatal operation.