James Marion Sims was an American physician who was regarded as the “Father of Modern Gynaecology” and a controversial figure due to ethical concerns posed during the development of his techniques. Sims was a pioneer in the design and development of reproductive health procedures for women.
The invention of a surgical procedure for reconstructing vesicovaginal fistulas, a severe complication of obstructed childbirth, was his most important contribution. American Medical Association elected Sims as president of the in 1876. He also became the president of the American Gynecological Society.
Sims mastered his medical skills by practicing on enslaved black women without anesthesia. In the twentieth century, Sims became a famous example of progress in the medical world. Medical ethicists, historians, and others argue Sims’ use of enslaved Black women as medical test subjects fall into a long, ethically contemptuous tradition. Sims’ critics claim he was more concerned with the experiments than offering treatment. He caused untold misery by working under the racist assumption that Black women do not suffer pain.
Sims invented the vaginal speculum, a method used for dilation and inspection when treating women was considered disagreeable and seldom achieved. He also developed a surgical procedure to repair vesicovaginal fistulas, a prevalent complication that occurred during childbirth. A cut around the uterus and bladder area caused constant suffering and urine leakage.
His supporters argue that the Southern-born slaveowner was merely a man of his day who believed that the end justified the means and that enslaved women with fistulas were likely to consent to participate in his experiments because they desperately needed the medication. However, it is unknown what their actual willingness was. The only legal requirement was approval from their owners, who had a clear financial interest in their rehabilitation.
Sims made his name among wealthy white plantation owners in Montgomery by treating their enslaved workers well. According to Vanessa Gamble, Sims’ profession was profoundly ingrained in the slave trade, a university professor of medical humanities at George Washington University. Sims constructed an eight-bed hospital in the heart of Montgomery’s trade district.
While the majority of healthcare was provided on the plantations, some stubborn cases were taken to doctors like Sims, who repaired enslaved workers so they could once again work for their masters. They were worthless to their owners otherwise. Sims, like most physicians in the nineteenth century, had no interest in treating female patients and had no formal gynecological training.
Examining and handling female organs was, in reality, generally regarded as obscene and disreputable.His interest in women’s treatment took turn when he supported a woman who had fallen off a horse and suffered from pelvic and back pain. Sims needed to look directly into this woman’s vaginal cavity to treat her injury. He had her down on all fours and leaned over, then used his fingers to peer inside. This discovery aided him in developing a bent pewter spoon handle.
Sims discovered the patient had a vesicovaginal fistula during his test. Sims started experimenting with surgical methods to treat such fistulas in 1845 when there was no proven cure for the disease. Sims legally assumed temporary custody of the women before their care was finished if the patients’ owners had clothes and paid taxes. He later commented on the benefits of working on people who were basically his property in his autobiography The Story of My Life. This was, according to Sims, the most “memorable moment” of his life.
The women had sought for the operations to alleviate their distress, according to Sims, but there is no record of whether they consented or not. Sims’ own documents listed three female fistula patients’ names Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey. Lucy, an 18-year-old woman who had given birth a few months before and had been unable to control her bladder, was the first one he operated on.
During the operation, patients were ordered to strip down to their underwear and sit on their knees, bending over onto their elbows with their heads resting on their hands. Lucy screamed and cried out in agony for an hour during the operation, which was witnessed by about a dozen other doctors. She became critically ill as a result of his controversial use of a sponge to remove urine from the bladder, which resulted in blood poisoning. However, she recovered after few months.
Sims’ fistula surgeries were unsuccessful for a long time. He eventually pioneered his system after four years of experimenting on one woman, a 17-year-old enslaved woman named Anarcha, who had experienced traumatic labor and delivery. Following that, he started to treat white women with anesthesia, which was a revolutionary concept in medicine at the time.
Although some doctors were sceptical of anesthesia, Sims’ refusal to use it or any other numbing technique was based on his erroneous conviction that Black women did not feel pain in the same way that white people did. Marion Sims is remembered as a medical trailblazer and continues to loom large in the medical world. Statues of him have been erected in Central Park in New York City, the South Carolina statehouse, and outside his old medical school, Jefferson University, in Philadelphia, among other locations.
The Philadelphia statue was put into storage, and the Central Park statue was demolished on April 17, 2018, after years of activism. The monument’s plaque was to be replaced with one that informs the public about the monument’s history and the controversial, non-consensual medical studies Sims conducted on women of color. Sims, Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey’s names (and histories) were to be remembered on the new plaque as the three recognized women “whose bodies were used in the name of medical and scientific progress” by Sims, Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey.