Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Dr. James Marion Sims, who experimented on slaves

The memorials to Confederate generals are coming down. Lake Calhoun, originally named for the Great Nullifier, has been rebranded. Isn't it time to fix those memorials to yet another son of South Carolina, James Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology and a researcher whose subjects happened to be slaves?

Susan Reverby writes:

On a quiet side of Central Park on 5th Avenue and 103rd Street, just across from the New York Academy of Medicine in East Harlem, stands the larger-than-life Sims (1813-1883). His 14-foot marble statue, erected in 1894, was the first for a doctor in the United States, and it moved to this site in 1934. He is considered the father of modern gynecology. His claim to inventing the speculum that made possible the visualization of the vagina, and his 1840s surgeries on slave women to correct fistulas in their vaginal walls that allowed urinary and fecal material to continuously drip, made him famous. These tears often happen in very young mothers and from obstructed long labor, or in women with deformed pelvises from rickets, lack of proper nutrition, syphilitic ulcers, or serious infections. While this horrific damage, which leads to further infections, terrible smells, and social isolation, is now seen primarily in parts of Africa, it was a common problem for all women in the 19th century, especially before caesarean sections could be performed safely. They were seen especially frequently as a byproduct of slavery that enforced rape and demanded pregnancy of newly pubescent women.

Sims, born in South Carolina, was practicing in Montgomery, Alabama, when enslaved women with this malady came to his attention. In an effort of surgical bravado, Sims operated on nearly a dozen black women, three of whom we only know as Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. In an era when anesthesia for operations was just beginning to be used, and doctors debated whether white women and women of color felt pain as intensely as white men did, these multiple surgeries were done without the benefit of loss of sensation. As Sims himself would declare, “Lucy’s agony was extreme,” and Anarcha endured more than 13 attempts to close her fistula. After years of experimentation, and eventually the proffering of opium to his subjects to lessen their pain, make them less likely to complain, but also keep bowel movements limited, Sims found a way to remove the necrotized tissue and sew up these fissures with silver wire sutures. In 1853, he moved to New York, founded the Women’s Hospital, and became a world-renown celebrity physician who operated on royalty, served as president of the American Medical Association, and aided in the establishment of the first New York cancer institute.

Reverby thinks it is time to set the record straight on Sims, and rightly so. She writes, "Perhaps it is time to remove the signs on the granite pedestals that announce Sims’ surgical talent in New York, and at least explain to other generations how such success was achieved on the bodies of others."  But Harlem is not the only place to house a monument to Sims.  There is a memorial on the grounds of the state capitol in South Carolina (pictured above) as well as in Montgomery, Alabama.  Shouldn't Southerners be told the full story about Sims as well?

1 comment:

  1. When I first read about this I thought, wow, what a scum bag. Then I read more in depth. From everything I can find out this condemnation of him is undeserved.
    First of all, he strongly did not believe in using anesthesia and though he did use it with some white women under pressure to do so, he argued against it and I believe later stop using it at all because he was so against using anesthesia with this procedure, believing the pain was not that great and that it did not justify the risks of using anesthesia. Women he did surgery on without anesthesia were taught ahead of time how to help with their surgery and they had to be an active willing participant.
    While he did believe that black women were able to handle pain better than white women, he did know the black women suffered pain, but he also knew that there were risks in using anesthesia that could be worse than suffering through the amount of pain the surgery required. There may have been an element of truth to black women tolerating pain better, not because they felt it less, but because they were not as pampered and had stronger will to withstand pain where pampered white women would not. However, as indicated, he always preferred strongly to perform the operation without anesthesia and he did the operation without anesthesia on white women too.
    Second of all, there is every indication these first black women he experimented on to cure problem very actively wanted him to try and they understood what he was doing was using his expertise to learn how to fix something he didn’t yet know how to do. The problem caused by the fistulas was such that these women were quite willing to take the risks. This is proven by the fact that he became discouraged, thinking that he could not figure it out, and he wanted to quit trying. But, those black women he was experimenting on to learn how to fix the problem wanted to have the problem fixed so desperately that they argued with him to not quit trying.
    Had it not been for those black women very actively wanting him to continue practicing and learning how to fix the problem, he would have quit.
    I think tearing down a statue crediting him for the good he did in developing this procedure is the wrong thing to do. Instead, an additional statue should be added crediting the 12 brave black women who helped him do it, because without their encouraging him to keep trying, he would never have succeeded.