In A Nutshell
J. Marion Sims was a doctor in the 1800s and is widely recognized as the world’s first gynecologist. However, it later came to light that he was not only a misogynistic pig, but he also experimented on slaves to further his medical knowledge. His legacy was called into question in the 1970s, when America was going through the upheaval of attempting to equalize racial and sexual rights.
The Whole Bushel
Born in South Carolina in 1813, J. Marion Sims was a thoroughly unremarkable man who seemed destined to accomplish nothing. Fate intervened in the guise of a young woman he met in 1845 who was suffering from a prolapsed uterus, which was a result of childbirth. She came to Dr. Sims for help, and he instructed the young woman to kneel on the ground and move her chest toward her knees, while he stood behind her. This afforded him a good view of what the birth had done to her vagina, and Dr. Sims knew then what he wanted to do with his life. (He’s off to a creepy start, obviously.)
Women of his day were rather commonly afflicted with vesicovaginal fistulas, holes which formed in the vaginal walls, usually during childbirth. These women, in addition to the pain they endured, also suffered from a constant leak of urine into their vaginas, something described as “a most intolerable stench” by a fellow physician of Dr. Sims’ time. He felt the position he had had his other female patient lie in would give him a better view and allow him to fix the vesicovaginal fistulas. Dr. Sims also invented the Sims speculum, a medical instrument used to gain a better view into a patient’s vagina. But first, he had to perfect his method. To accomplish this, Dr. Sims purchased slaves.
It was said he operated on as many as 10 women but that three of them, solely known as Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsy, were operated on multiple times. His own medical records show that he operated on Anarcha on at least 30 separate occasions. In addition to the forced surgeries these women had to endure, Dr. Sims refused to use anesthesia, even though it had been commonplace since the early part of the 18th century. Some of his fellow physicians urged him to stop, but Sims claimed the slaves wanted to take part in his experiments, that they had been “clamorous” for the operation. After successfully completing the surgery on the slaves he had purchased, Dr. Sims proceeded to cure Caucasian women, who were no doubt grateful he hadn’t experimented on them. After his success, and later after his death, Dr. Sims was celebrated as a pioneer in the new field of gynecology and even has various statues dedicated to him.
The first doctor to question Dr. Sims’ medical history in later years was Dr. Graham J. Barker-Benfield, a historian at Trinity College, who wrote in 1974 that the women Dr. Sims experimented on “endured years of almost unimaginable agonies.” Durrenda Ojanuga, writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, referred to Dr. Sims’ work as “a classic example of the evils of slavery and the misuse of human subjects for medical research.” Most scholars now view his legacy along the lines of Dr. Mengele and the other infamous doctors of history: a source of knowledge no doubt, but a source which carries a heavy ethical price if one wishes to use the information.