Exploiting Enslaved Women Propelled the Father of Gynecology to Fame
A monument of Dr. James Marion Sims stands in front of the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, eulogizing him as the “father of modern gynecology” and a “benefactor of women.” But Sims has also been remembered as the far more sinister “father butcher,” due to the fact that his achievements, fame and wealth were only made possible through the horrifying experiments he conducted on enslaved African American women.
The transatlantic slave trade was banned in the United States in 1808, when the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves came into effect, cutting off the supply of new slaves brought from Africa. This paradoxically turned the bodies of existing African American slave women into valuable commodities, as their wombs were needed to give birth to new slave stock.
This opened the door for many white doctors, particularly in Southern states, to begin medical research on slaves—especially in the specialties of obstetrics and gynecology—in the hopes of protecting the economic interests of slave owners and creating proven treatments for white women.
It was in this context that Sims began experimenting on slaves in the late 1840s, in a rickety structure behind his clinic on 33 S. Perry Street, Montgomery, dubbed “the Negro Hospital.” One of his main projects was finding a cure for vesicovaginal fistulas, where abnormal openings develop between the bladder and vagina after childbirth complications or sexual assault. Untreated, the condition caused incontinence and impeded the reproductive capacity of female slaves for white owners.
J. Marion Sims's contribution to the field of gynecology lie in a series of experiments performed on the enslaved women Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey, among others, without anesthesia.pic.twitter.com/M55vb4uqKj
— Fashioning the Self in Slavery and Freedom (@FashioningSelf) March 7, 2023
His unquestionably valuable findings are overshadowed by ethical concerns, and evidence of his mistreatment of African American women prompted the removal in 2018 of his monument, deemed a “symbol of hate,” from Central Park in New York.
The statues are located near the site of Sims' controversial clinic, which Browder has purchased to house a museum and health-care center, set to open in 2024 as a place of healing and a reminder of historic inhumane treatment conducted in the name of “science.”
The “Mothers of Gynecology” counter-monument on 17 Mildred Street in Montgomery, Alabama, which commemorates the enslaved girls used in experiments by Dr. James Marion Sims in the 1800s. (Courtesy of Michelle Browder)
Browder’s “historical counterweight” commemorates the enslaved girls used in Sims' experiments without consent—representing Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy, who were named in his notes. Strapped down naked, they endured painful procedures, often in the presence of several white doctors. In his own words, Sims blamed unsuccessful procedures on “the sloth and ignorance of their mothers and the black midwives who attended them.”
Sims’ decision not to employ anesthesia was a conscious one, due to prevalent racist stereotypes and medical fiction claiming that, unlike white people, black-skinned people were inferior, biologically different and didn’t feel pain. This was a convenient way to question their humanity in a culture which needed to justify slavery.
Top image: The success of Dr. James Marion Sims, the so-called father of gynecology, was achieved thanks to the suffering of enslaved African American women. Source: annne / Adobe Stock