Dr. Mary Dixon Jones became a world-renowned surgeon for her treatment of diseases of the female reproductive system, in a time when few women physicians were able to build a career in the specialty. She is credited as the first person in America to propose and perform a full hysterectomy (surgical removal of the uterus) for the treatment of uterine myoma (a tumor of muscle tissue). She trained with Mary Putnam Jacobi in New York, and is considered one of the leading women scientists of the late nineteenth century.
Mary Amanda Dixon was born in Maryland in 1828, to Noah Dixon and Sally Turner. Her family had made good money in the shipbuilding industry, and were able to pay for a good education for her. She graduated from Wesleyan Female College in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1845, and stayed on to teach physiology and literature for four years as professor. She also began studying medicine, informally apprenticed to Dr. Henry F. Askew, president of the American Medical Association. From 1850 to 1852 she taught at Baltimore Female College, and continued her studies in Baltimore with Dr. Thomas E. Bond, Jr., who founded the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery. Such apprenticeships were a common first stage for would-be medical students of the period, although such prestigious associations with established practitioners were difficult for women to obtain.
In 1854 Dixon married John Quincy Adams Jones, a lawyer. They moved west to Illinois and then Wisconsin, and had three children. In 1862 Mary Dixon Jones left alone for New York, to study medicine at the Hygeio-Therapeutic Medical College. This was an 'irregular' school, and like others offering training in subjects outside of the standard curriculum (such as hydrotherapy or homeopathy), it was a co-educational school that provided an opportunity for women excluded from 'regular' medical colleges to study medicine and earn their license to practice. She graduated in 1862 and moved to Brooklyn.
Although she maintained a successful private practice between 1862 and 1872, earning substantially more than many male physicians in New York in some years, she decided to go back to school at the age of 44, enrolling at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1872. As a practicing physician in Brooklyn she had seen patients with complicated and distressing gynecological problems that she was unsure how to treat. At the same time, the field of obstetrical and gynecological surgery was becoming a specialty in its own right, with innovative new operations described regularly in the medical literature, and new techniques being taught in medical schools. She also studied with Mary Putnam Jacobi in New York for a few months in 1973, learning more about the latest scientific techniques in pathology and clinical diagnosis.
After graduating in 1875 Dr. Dixon Jones specialized in the treatment of diseases of the female reproductive system, and in 1876 began studying pathology with Dr. Charles Heitzman, one of the founders of the American Dermatological Association. Always interested in expanding her education, she returned to New York to study at the Post-Graduate Medical School and Hospital in New York City. From 1882 to 1891 she served as gynecologist at the Woman's Hospital of Brooklyn and built an impressive reputation for her surgical skills and her enthusiasm for some of the more radical procedures in the field of gynecological surgery. Most importantly, she provided the very rare service of a woman surgeon well-qualified to perform dangerous but possibly life-saving operations for women suffering from diseases of the reproductive system.
In February 1888, Dr. Dixon Jones performed a hysterectomy and removed the womb and a seventeen-pound uterine tumor from a living patient. She described the procedure in the New York Medical Journal later that year, noting that the patient was almost fully recovered from the illness and the operation within fifteen days of the surgery. This was the first time in America that such a procedure was performed for the treatment of myoma of the uterus.
In 1895, after losing a libel case she brought against a Brooklyn newspaper for slandering her surgical work, Dr. Dixon Jones was forced to retire from practice and instead focused on her work on the pathology of disease. She died just over a decade later, having described the characteristics seen under the microscope for many of the diseases she treated and explaining their connection. She was one of the few gynecological surgeons of her time to take up the laboratory study of specimens as an important part of the practice of medicine.
Dr. Dixon Jones published over fifty medical articles and was an associate editor of the Philadelphia Times and Register, the American Journal of Surgery and Gynecology, and the Woman's Medical Journal. She was a member of the New York Pathological Society and well-known for her work at home and abroad.