On the shady northwest corner of the statehouse grounds in Columbia, South Carolina, a place wrought with controversy over its harsh, shameful tributes to slavery, sits a monument dedicated to James Marion Sims.
The monument honoring the South Carolinian from Lancaster County curiously dubbed "The Father of Gynecology" is one of the largest on the site. In front of a large cement archway sits a bronze bust of Sims, looking down with crooked brow and a fatherly grin. Directly beneath his image is a quote from Hippocrates, "Where the love of man is, there is also the love of art." Etched in a panel to the left, an inscription touts, "The first surgeon of the ages in ministry to women, treating alike empress and slave." On the panel to the right, the inscription continues, "He founded the science of gynecology, was honored in all lands and died with the benediction of mankind."
Historians from South Carolina proudly proclaim that Dr. Sims innovated techniques and developed instruments that changed the landscape of womenâ€™s reproductive health. Outside accounts portray him quite differently. What is not in dispute is that between 1845 and 1849, in a makeshift hospital he built in his backyard, Sims inaugurated a long, drawn-out series of excruciating, experimental gynecological operations on countless enslaved African women. This was all done without the benefit of anesthesia or before any type of antiseptic was used. Many lost their lives to infection. It is their story that history has failed to tell and their legacy of courage and endurance that should be honored, not their captorâ€™s.
In an autobiography entitled, "The Story of My Life," Sims described himself as quite unexceptional. He was born in 1813 and received his higher education at Columbia College,
predecessor of University of South Carolina, and received a BA in 1832. Sims would apprentice under the tutelage of Dr. Churchill Jones, a once respected doctor in Lancaster, who was suffering from chronic alcoholism. He observed the failing doctor perform many surgeries and deliver many lectures. Insecure, yet inspired to become a surgeon, Sims left for Charleston Medical College in November of 1833.
He was unprepared for the rigors of Charleston Medical College. For his next term he attended Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and it was there Sims met another great influence in his life, Professor George McClellan. He describes him as, "very eccentric and erratic as a teacher… Not that he had much system, but whatever he said was to the point." In May of 1835, equipped with some surgical instruments and an eight-volume medical text, Sims returned to Lancaster eager to practice medicine. He had no clinical experience, logged no actual hospital time and no experience diagnosing illnesses.
After weeks of sitting alone in a Main Street office his father had rented, Dr. J. Marion Sims treated his first patient. It was the young son of a prominent citizen of Lancaster. Sims documented, "When I arrived I found a child about eighteen months old, very much emaciated, who had what we would call the summer complaint, or chronic diarrhea. I examined the child minutely from head to foot. I looked at its gums, and as I always carried a lancet with me and had surgical propensities, as soon as I saw some swelling of the gums I at once took out my lancet and cut the gums down to the teeth. This was good so far as it went. But, when it came time to making up a prescription, I had no more ideas of what ailed the child, or what to do for it, than if I had never studied medicine."
Sims administered a haphazard regimen of prescriptions to the child, going from chapter to chapter in sparse medical books, but to no avail. After a few days, the infant died. Simsâ€™ second case came two weeks later. It was another infant with the same symptoms. Sims retracted the gums and administered another series of treatments, this time starting at the last chapter in the book and working backwards. He accomplished the same result. Sims lamented, " I had the misfortune to lose my first two patients, and the thought of it was too terrible to be borne. I had never heard of such terrible luck, and never thought that such misfortune could ever happen to any young man in the world."
In October of 1835, immediately after the death of the two infants, John Sims took his son to Alabama. After three weeks by wagon, they made it as far as Mt. Meigs. Acting primarily as a plantation physician, Sims became known for operations on clubfeet, cleft palates and crossed eyes. He began to treat enslaved babies suffering from what he called "trismus nascentium," now known as neonatal tetanus. Tetanus originates in horse manure, and itâ€™s probable the proximity of the slave quarters to the horse stables was the direct cause of the high rate of tetanus in enslaved babies. According Sims, he comes to quite another conclusion that offers us a glimpse into his personal views. "Whenever there are poverty, and filth, and laziness, or where the intellectual capacity is cramped, the moral and social feelings blunted, there it will be oftener found. Wealth, a cultivated intellect, a refined mind, an affectionate heart, are comparatively exempt from the ravages of this unmercifully fatal malady. But expose this class to the same physical causes, and they become equal sufferers with the first." Since he attributed the cause of the disease to the moral weakness of the enslaved Africans, he never suggested the need to improve their living conditions.
Sims also argued that the movement of the skull bones during a protracted birth contributed to trismus. Clearly designating patients by class and race, Sims began to exercise his freedom to experiment on the enslaved infants. He took custody of them and with a shoemakerâ€™s awl, a pointed tool used for making holes in leather, tried to pry the bones of their skulls into proper alignment. According to his published articles, this procedure was only practiced on enslaved African babies. Because he "owned" these poor, innocent children, he had free access to their bodies for autopsies, which he usually performed immediately after death. Sims routinely blamed "slave mothers and nurses for infant suffering, especially through their ignorance."
Enslaved African midwives were numerous throughout the South. For hundreds of years, childbirth was not considered a "sickness" and for the most part, physicians did not attend births. But in the mid-nineteenth century, the attitude of the white male medical practitioners towards midwifery was changing. Male-dominated medicine was now challenging female-governed childbirth. The African midwifeâ€™s spiritual traditions and knowledge
of rituals and herbs handed down orally through generations earned her honor and respect among the enslaved. Just as the Southern physician was at the core of his social web, the midwife enjoyed the equivalent status. This could have fueled the white masterâ€™s need to remove them from positions of prominence. The early obstetricians chose to exclude midwives from their research and utterly dismissed their collective knowledge. Reminiscent of witch-hunts, persecution of midwives by white males was beginning to play out again on southern plantations.
Women were pivotal in slaveryâ€™s very definition. Enslavement was perpetuated through the status of the mother. If she was a slave, so were her children. They were frequently the objects of aggressive sexual rapes from those who held power over them. The economy of slavery imposed the role of "breeder" on these women and their ability to reproduce was equated with their worth as property. They never received enhanced diets or lower workloads while pregnant and often endured great hardships during childbirth. Reasons for prolonged labor among African women were probably related to their diet. In a relatively high percentage of Africans, dairy products not only fail to yield calcium in digestion, but can also cause sickness. Calcium deficiencies during childhood often result in rickets. This condition isnâ€™t fatal, however it causes skeletal deformities, among them a contracted pelvis that would result in a prolonged delivery. Not surprisingly, a condition known as vesico-vaginal fistulas, or vaginal tears, was prevalent among enslaved women.
One spring afternoon in 1845, Sims was summoned to the Westcott plantation about a mile out of Montgomery. A young, enslaved woman named Anarcha, one of seventy-five Africans held captive there, had been in labor for three days without delivering. Sims tried to aid the birth by applying forceps to the impacted head of the fetus. He recalled having little experience using the instrument. The baby was born – no record if it lived or died – and the mother sustained several fistulas, resulting in incontinence. It is unclear whether Sims inflicted the damage himself while using the unfamiliar forceps or they occurred as a result of the prolonged birth. Several days after Anarcha delivered, she was sent to Sims in hopes he could repair the damage. Sims found her condition repugnant. Her value diminished considerably, and Sims obliged to her master, he attempted to repair Anarchaâ€™s badly damaged body.
Eager to devote the rest of his life to this condition, he built a crude sixteen-bed hospital in his backyard. To aid him in his experiments, he fashioned over 71 surgical instruments. Sims sent for as many cases as he could find. Plantation owners were happy to turn their incontinent, damaged female slaves over to Sims for experimentation. They were of little use to their masters in their present condition. Between January 1846 and June 1849, he experimented surgically on as many as eleven patients at one time. Two enslaved women in addition to Anarcha – Betsy and Lucy – were also young women who contracted fistulas giving birth for the first time. Together, these three women endured repeated operations and were patients of Sims for the duration of the hospitalâ€™s existence. Anarcha is believed to have undergone over thirty operations.
Sims subscribed to a commonly held belief that Africans had a specific physiological tolerance for pain, unknown by whites. He never felt the need to anesthetize his black patients in Montgomery. The white women, who came to him after the surgery was an accepted form of treatment, were unable to withstand the same operation without anesthesia according to Sims.
In the first months of the original surgeries, Sims would invite his colleagues to witness the operations. As the number of operations grew and the failures mounted, Sims soon found himself operating alone. The hospital was "off limits" to Simsâ€™ family so he had to rely on the assistance of the enslaved victims themselves. After a couple of years of repeated surgeries and failures, his wifeâ€™s brother, Dr. Rush Jones from the neighboring county of Lowndes, implored him to stop his experiments. "We have watched you, and sympathized with you; but your friends here have seen that of late you are doing too much work, and that you are breaking down. And, besides, I must tell you frankly that with your young and growing family, it is unjust to them to continue in this way, and carry on this series of experiments." Sims replied, "I am going on â€¦ to the end. It matters not what it costs, if it costs me my life." To those close to Sims, it appeared his preoccupation with the experiments had become an obsession.
Sims had been suturing the vaginal tears with materials common to that era, mostly silk and catgut, which absorbed bodily fluid. This caused inflammation around the wounds, promoting horrible infections that would never heal. It is unclear what prompted Sims to have his jeweler fashion some fine silver wire for suturing wounds. He used it on one of Anarchaâ€™s fistulas at the base of her bladder. Days later, when Sims found no infection, he declared that silver sutures were the key to mending vesico-vaginal fistulas. He quickly utilized the metal sutures on all of his captives and claimed to have cured them all, but there is no outside evidence to support his claim. He declared, "I had made, perhaps, one of the most important discoveries of the age for the relief of suffering humanity." Sims never recorded if he was able to heal Anarcha of her other fistulas and to this day, physicians debate the type of suture to use in the operation, although the condition is rarely seen anymore. Simsâ€™ success remains unsubstantiated by all medical standards.
In the fall of 1849, Sims was stricken with an intestinal illness and spent several years moving from place to place in search of relief. In 1853, he moved to the cooler climate of New York. While Sims maintained a strong commitment to the morality of owning slaves and held a strong allegiance to the South, he began to revise and moderate his tone for the different political climate he found on Madison Avenue.
J. Marion Sims went on to convince a group of philanthropic women of the old New Yorkâ€™s elite class that his motives were sincere and his methods proven. He garnered enough enthusiasm and financial support to set up a womanâ€™s charity hospital in May of 1855. Sims was once again in business to perform his operations, this time, on poor Irish immigrant women. He is honored with a statue on the corner of 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue for his contributions. He traveled extensively to Europe and enjoyed the reputation of being a famous American doctor. While abroad in 1863, he was asked to examine Empress Eugenie of France. This is how the inscription came to read, "treating alike empress and slave," although he employed very different methods of treatment depending on the patientâ€™s social status. He faithfully sent money to support the confederacy, but never returned to the south. He died in New York in 1883.
The success of J. Marion Sims as "the father of gynecology" in the United States solely resulted from the personal sacrifices of the enslaved African women he experimented on from 1845 to 1849. Had they not been his property, giving him carte blanche to cut them open as he saw fit, he could never have devised the surgical technique that brought him international recognition. He never expressed any interest in the cause of vesico-vaginal fistulas or in the health of the women themselves. Nor did he concern himself with the extent of recovery made by the patients. And never did he express moral uncertainty over keeping women captive for the expressed purpose of painful surgical experimentation.
Undeniably, nineteenth century medical practices were crude and painful, but Simsâ€™ contemporaries felt him unnecessarily cruel. Since it was illegal for enslaved Africans to read or write, an offense punishable by death, Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy left no account of their ordeal. All over the world, Sims has been honored and memorialized with statues and plaques. Buildings, hospitals, foundations, schools and streets bare his name. While it is impossible to negate the historical context of his racial, class and gender biases, shouldnâ€™t we agree to apply some basic standard of humanity to those we choose to honor?