Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Joseph Smith's Leg Surgery - West Lebanon, New Hampshire

In 1811, when Joseph Smith was age 5, his family moved to West Lebanon, New Hampshire from South Royalton, Vermont. They stayed in a rented home just south of the Mascoma River. The picture below is of the river looking east from the Main Street bridge.
Below is the river looking west from the Main Street bridge. 
This is just east of the junction of the Mascoma River and the gigantic Connecticut River which serves as the state line between Vermont and New Hampshire. Below is a picture of the home before it was torn down in 1967.
It is now the site of a gas station 
on the southeast corner of Benning 
and Main Streets, not too far off the I-89 freeway. This picture, taken from near the river, looks past the home location, on the other side of the sign on the left side of the street, to the freeway overpass.
Dartmouth College is located 4 ½ miles north. Joseph’s brother Hyrum attended Moor’s Academy, located near the northwest corner of the Dartmouth College green, which was run by the same board of trustees as Dartmouth.

A typhus fever plague arrived in 1813, when Joseph was 7, and all of the Smith children got it. Hyrum had to take a year’s leave from Moor’s and Joseph’s sister, Sophronia, nearly died. A quart of pus was drained from Joseph’s armpit and the infection migrated to his leg below his knee, where more infection was drained. The infection was in the bone and refused to heal. Hyrum was classmates with five of Dr. Nathan Smith’s children. Nathan Smith was founder of the Dartmouth Medical School and later founded the Yale Medical School. Perhaps because of Hyrum’s connections with Dr. Smith’s children, Dr. Smith, with a team of surgeons and medical students, visited the Smith home and used a new procedure to open Joseph’s bone and allow the pus to drain, saving the leg from having to be amputated. Joseph Smith described the surgery as follows: “Trying an experiment by removing a large portion of the bone from my left leg, which they did, and fourteen additional pieces of bone afterwards worked out before my leg healed, during which time I was reduced so very low that my mother could carry me with ease.” Joseph’s mother, Lucy, described the operation as follows: “The Surgeons commenced operating by boring into the bone of [Joseph’s] leg, first on the one side of the bone where it was affected, then on the other side, after which they broke it off with a pair of forceps or pincers. They thus took away large pieces of the bone.” Dr. Smith thereafter visited Joseph 18 times over the course of the next 20 days. It took Joseph three years on crutches before he could fully walk without them.

Joseph had what is now known as osteomyelitis and Nathan Smith happened to be the person who developed the medical procedure for curing it without amputation. Amputation remained the usual method for treatment of osteomyelitis until 1874. Lecture notes from one of Nathan Smith’s students at Dartmouth in 1812, reveal details about the operation. “Necrosis [osteomyelitis]…is a disease of considerable importance but surgical writers have said little about it….When matter is found within the bone, it should be punctured with a trephine [a small cylindrical saw] a little below the center so that the matter may be discharged. Sometimes it is punctured with a common perforating instrument with a point. When this is used, there should be a number of holes made, that it may discharge freely…Nature begins to form new bone, which generally surrounds the decaying part, the dead bone is sometimes thrown out by the surgeon keeping the wound open…The new formed bone is much larger than the original and confined both ends of the dead part within its walls. In this case, the dead bone should be cut with a trephinie or Heys saw in the middle and extracted with a pair of common forceps…The operation should not be deferred until the bone rots away, for in this case, the patient generally becomes a cripple the remainder of his day. By operating in the right time, a small piece being taken out it generally saves the loss of a large portion.”

This story of Joseph Smith as a youth created a great impression on me as a young boy. It is a story my mother told me about many times and she later included the story in her writings about Joseph as a young boy. I found it very satisfying to be able to find the approximate location where this took place and think about those events in the context of the geography I was seeing. In some respects, it was almost more significant to locate the site amidst a modern development than it would have been to have it developed as a historical site, like his birth location, in South Royalton, Vermont, which we visited later in the day. A painting of Joseph at the time of his operation (perhaps before it?) is located in the visitor’s center in South Royalton.

Sources for this were P. Douglas Kiester, MD, Professor of Orthopaedics at the University of California, Irvine, “The ‘Uneducated’Prophet", part of the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum; Lamar C. Berrett, General Editor, Sacred Places: New England and Eastern Canada – A Comprehensive Guide to Early LDS Historical Sites, pp. 69-73; and Leroy S. Wirthlin, assistant clinical professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, “NathanSmith (1762-1828) Surgical Consultant to Joseph Smith", BYU Studies Volume 17:3, pp. 319-337.


  1. Great research. That is a really interesting description of the operation that I had not read before.

  2. Very cool. Thanks! I was just out to Nauvoo for the David Whitmer Historical Association conference and got to bunk in the top floor of the Nauvoo House. Something about being in the actual place these things happened is thrilling for me.

  3. Great post dear blogger, I couldn't ignore those insights 'cos I've been studying everything regarding Joseph Smith. It was a witty man. Absolutely.

  4. I think that remember the pas is an useless thing because we always go forward and remember our roots make us believe again in old ways when people were people.

  5. Hi! I was wondering where you found the image of the Smith West Lebanon home? I'd like to use it in a short Documentary being put together by a couple of BYU Religion professors.

    1. I believe it may have come from Lamar Berrett's Sacred Places above (I don't have a copy available to me right now). There is a different photo of the home (photo 16 on page 194) in Glimpses of Church History in New England: A Photo Essay by Craig J. Ostler at http://rsc.byu.edu/sites/default/files/pubs/pdf/new-england-09-ostler.pd.

  6. Thanks so much! Craig J. Ostler is who I'm doing the Documentary for! We like the one that you have because it seems to have a better front view of the house.


  7. Based on the information found in historical ephemera, the house in question was located closer to the river, and more approximates the current location of KFC in West Lebanon NH. As seen on this 1906 historical Topo, the first house south of the Mascoma River is the location. http://historical.mytopo.com/getImage.asp?fname=hanv06se.jpg&state=VT

    I hope you find this useful.