University of Illinois professor Deborah McGregor has shed light on an important piece of American history. McGregor has noted that Dr. James Marion Sims, considered the father of modern gynecology, developed many of his techniques by operating on slaves, many of whom were not given anesthesia.
McGregor, author of 'From Midwives to Medicine: The Birth of American Gynecology,' said "There is no doubt that he carried out experiments on women, and that he was only able to do so because they were slaves."
Part of the controversy regarding Sims centers around a statue placed near Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street in New York City. The statue is located next to the New York Academy of Medicine, in a neighborhood that is majority black and Puerto Rican. EastHarlemPreservation.org put a poll on its Website that asks: "Should the NYC Parks Department remove the statue of Dr. Marion Sims from its East Harlem location considering his experiments on female and infant slaves?"
Out of 650 people who responded, 62 percent voted that the statue should be removed, while 16 percent of respondents claim that it shouldn't be. The rest said they would need more information.
New York City Council member Charles Barron petitioned to have the statue removed, but was not successful. The failure of the petition hasn't killed the effort. All the while, the New York City Parks and Recreation Department says that there have been no requests to remove the statue.
Among other things, Sims was known for having invented the speculum, which allows doctors to see inside the vagina. He also claimed to have been the first doctor to treat club foot and crossed eyes. One focal point of his work was the treatment of vesico-vaginal fistula, a condition caused by prolonged labor, leading to an embarrassing odor and serious pain for the patient affected. Women with this condition were forced to stay away from other people and were even sent away from their families.
Sims operated on 10 slave women from 1845 to 1849. Anesthesia became available in 1846, and there were at least three slaves who were not given anything to dull the pain. According to a New York Times article in 1894, the "first operation was on a female slave and was unsuccessful. He operated again and again on the same subject [Anarcha], and finally, in his 30th trial, he was successful."
After the procedure was perfected using slave women, Sims then began to operate on white women. The white women were given anesthesia. McGregor says that Sims also operated on slave infants.
One of the defenders of Sims' efforts is Dr. L. Lewis Wall of Washington University in St. Louis. Wall has argued that Sims' work was "not necessarily racist."
"Acceptance [of anesthesia among doctors at the time] was not universal, and there was considerable opposition to its introduction from many different quarters, for many different reasons. ...The evidence suggests that Sims' original patients were willing participants in his surgical attempts to cure their affliction -- a condition for which no other viable therapy existed at that time."
While I can sympathize with Wall's efforts to defend Sims, I simply cannot agree. The mere notion that he perfected his techniques by experimenting on slave women clearly implies that for Sims, slaves were subhuman lab rats on which he could pursue his scientific work. He is no different from Nazi doctors who performed horrifying experiments on Jews during the Holocaust. Conducting this kind of work on white women would never have been allowed, so being black was the key in allowing for this form of subjugation (notice that he wasn't able to "help" white women until the failed surgeries had been performed on black women, similar to how the doctors in the film 'Something the Lord Made' would "help" sick dogs by trying experimental procedures to save their lives) . So, yes, Dr. Sims' decision to experiment on black women was certainly racist and was also part of the foundation of distrust between the medical profession and the African American community.
One suggestion was that instead of a maintaining a monument honoring Dr. Sims, another statue should be constructed to memorialize the women on whom the experiments were done. Such a move would show appreciation for the medical advances made by both Sims and the women who were forced to endure this serious pain in the name of science. Sims might have been a great scientist, but for women and people of color, he is certainly no hero. Experimenting on our people as if he were Dr. Frankenstein is disrespectful to our humanity.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and a Scholarship in Action resident of the Institute for Black Public Policy. To have Dr. Boyce's commentary delivered to your e-mail, please click here.