The Shocking Truth About “The Father of Gynecology”

Updated: Jul 25

“You may have heard of James Marion Sims with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, especially since conversations surrounding racism in medicine are coming to light. Let’s take a look at what made him such a controversial figure.”

Author: Hadeel Alhadi

You may have heard of James Sims with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, especially since conversations surrounding racism in medicine are coming to light.

James Marion Sims — “The Father of Gynecology” — earned his title via multiple inventions of surgical tools and gynecological treatments [1,2]. Sims pioneered many such breakthrough findings in the field, making him a well-known figure of his time and beyond [1,2].

So, what about Sims made him so controversial?

A Matter of Ethics

Sims’ research was entirely conducted on enslaved Black women without anesthesia or consent [3]. Many of his defenders excuse his abuse to his test subjects on the grounds that his technique helped end a real medical disaster plaguing women [3]. However, when the harm is only inflicted on a captive, powerless group, and their suffering is exploited to benefit the privileged, there is an extremely urgent need to question the morality of the practitioner and their practise [3].

Nathan Bozeman, Sims’ colleague, reported that most of the women that Sims experimented on were not provided any relief after years of abuse, and that Bozeman had to repair many of the remaining subjects’ fistulas himself [4].

Sims’ practices were also often excused as being a product of his time; there used to be a belief that Black people did not feel pain [5]. Nonetheless, Sims contradicted this in a statement from his memoir when he described the pain of one of his patients, Lucy, as “extreme agony” and near-death [5]. He additionally described her pain tolerance and endurance during the operation as “great bravery and heroism” [5].

Additionally, it was reported that Sims gave morphine to the women whom he experimented on only after the operation [3]. Their eventual morphine addiction weakened his test subjects and prevented them from resisting later procedures, controlling their post- and between-procedure behaviors [3].

Sims’ experimentation on humans is regarded as wildly unethical by today’s standards [6]. As such, the American history is full of similar atrocious examples of medical experimentation on enslaved persons, including the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and the atrocities of the Holocaust. Most of the victims of many of these experiments were not compensated aside from a mere apology, if even provided that [6].

Acknowledging atrocities throughout history and comprehending their long-lasting impacts helps in shining light on such historical events. It is therefore integral to be mindful of such events and actively educate future healthcare professionals to understand transgenerational trauma and improve future pathways of action.

Editors

Winnie Lui, Rhea Verma, Mouayad Masalkhi

Designers

Williams Thottungal and Majd Al-Aarg

Additional Credits

Header Image from History Commons

References

  1. Muffly TM, Tizzano AP, Walters MD. The history and evolution of sutures in pelvic surgery. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine [Internet]. 2011 Mar 1 [cited 2020 Sep 20];104(3):107-112. Available from: doi:10.1258/jrsm.2010.100243

  2. Stamatakos M, Sargedi C, Stasinou T, Kontzoglou K. Vesicovaginal fistula: Diagnosis and management. Indian Journal of Surgery [Internet]. 2012 Dec 14 [cited 2020 Sep 20];76(2):131-136. Available from: doi:10.1007/s12262-012-0787-y

  3. Washington HA. Medical apartheid: The dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present. New York: Harlem Moon; 2006 [cited 2020 Sep 20]. Available from: https://books.google.ca/books/about/Medical_Apartheid.html?id=dGWKDQAAQBAJ&redir_esc=y

  4. Ivy N. Bodies of work: A meditation on medical imaginaries and enslaved women. Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society [Internet]. 2016 Jun 1 [cited 2020 Sep 20];18(1):11-31. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1080/10999949.2016.1162590

  5. Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped from the beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in America [Internet]. New York (NY): PublicAffairs; 2016 [cited 2020 Sep 20]. Available from: https://books.google.ca/books/about/Stamped_from_the_Beginning.html?id=e_3cCgAAQBAJ&redir_esc=y

  6. Ojanuga, D. The medical ethics of the ‘father of gynaecology’, Dr J Marion Sims. Journal of Medical Ethics [Internet]. 1993 [cited 2020 Sep 20];19:28-31. Available from: doi:10.1136/jme.19.1.28

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