FEB 04, 2022 3:00 AM PST

A Historic Four Day Surgery

WRITTEN BY: Katie Kokolus

Ovarian cysts are a common condition, and many women experience them.  Most of the time, ovarian cysts are harmless, and can disappear over time on their own without treatment.  However, on occasion, ovarian cysts can transform into malignant tumors.  Whether benign or cancerous, large ovarian tumors are typically surgically removed to prevent complications.  

Today, February 4th, is the anniversary of an obscure medical milestone, forgotten by many textbooks. In 1951, February 4th was the first day of what would become a four-day operation, believed to be the world’s longest surgery, to remove an ovarian tumor from a woman in Michigan.

Doctors discovered a previously undiagnosed ovarian tumor in Gertrude Levandowski, a 58-year-old woman from Michigan.  Upon diagnosis, the tumor presumably grew for about ten years, resulting in significant weight gain.  Gertrude’s doctors feared they could not remove the tumor without adding a lethal strain to her already weakened heart. 

About a year and a half before the surgery, another physician, Dr. Gould, examined Gertrude.  Dr. Gould believed that the pressure caused by the giant cyst was provoking the strain on her heart.  He suggested that removal of the cyst could actually cure Gertrude’s heart issues. 

Dr. M.S. Roberts, a surgeon from Chicago, had a novel idea, giving a highly vulnerable Gertrude the best odds of surviving this dangerous procedure.  Roberts believed that draining the tumor would reduce the stress on the heart by preventing a rapid drop in pressure. 

Gertrude arrived at a hospital weighing about 620 pounds.  This number was a mere estimate because while standing one foot on each of two side-by-side scales, Gertrude still maxed out the 600-pound weight limit!  During the 96-hour procedure, Roberts slowly drained fluid from the cyst.  In total, Roberts withdrew about 200 pounds of fluid.  Roberts then removed the shriveled cyst, which weighed about 150 pounds.  Following the procedure, which ended on February 8th, 1951, Gertrude weighed in at 308 pounds, almost half of her pre-surgery body weight.  

A contemporary article published two weeks after the surgery in Time detailed Gertrude’s recovery indicating that she was “convalescing cheerfully in her little house, surrounded by sons, daughters, grandchildren, dogs, a canary, a parakeet.”  A few months later, Gertrude underwent another operation to remove about 50 pounds of excess abdominal tissue that once housed the cyst.  Following this operation, Gertrude broke 300 pounds for the first time in over a decade. 

This marathon procedure might only be a footnote in history, but it was certainly an achievement in science and medicine.  Today, over 70 years after this momentous operation, we acknowledge the accomplishment of Dr. Roberts and the perseverance of Gertrude Levandowski. 


Sources: Newsweek, Time

About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
I received a PhD in Tumor Immunology from SUNY Buffalo and BS and MS degrees from Duquesne University. I also completed a postdoc fellowship at the Penn State College of Medicine. I am interested in developing novel strategies to improve the efficacy of immunotherapies used to extend cancer survivorship.
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