by Boyce Watkins (2010)
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 [western] gynecology, developed many of his techniques by operating on enslaved African women, 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 [enslaved].”
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 African American 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 [enslaved African women and their infants]?” 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. […] 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. White women with this condition were forced to stay away from other people and were even sent away from their families.
Sims operated on 10 enslaved African women from 1845 to 1849. Anesthesia became available in 1846, and there were at least three African women who were not given anything to dull the pain. According to a New York Times article in 1894, the “first operation was on [an enslaved African women] and was unsuccessful. He operated again and again on the same [woman, Anarcha], and finally, in his 30th trial, he was successful.”
After the procedure was perfected using African women, Sims then began to operate on white women. The white women were given anesthesia. McGregor says that Sims also operated on infants of enslaved African women.
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.”
“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.” [The white women who stank, or the African women he enslaved to torture? NBP]
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 enslaved women clearly implies that for Sims, enslaved Africans were [looked upon as] subhuman lab rats […].
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. 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 [of] Dr. Sims, another statue should be constructed to memorialize the African women on whom the experiments were done. […] Experimenting on our people as if he were Dr. Frankenstein [was] disrespectful to our humanity.