The Dark Story of James Marion Sims, ‘Father of Modern Gynaecology’

Trigger warning: This piece contains details about sexual abuse which may be triggering to survivors.

Born in Lancaster, South Carolina in the year 1813, James Marion Sims, who is known as the “father of modern gynaecology”, joined the medical field at a time when doctors didn’t have to undergo the rigorous training they do today.

Sims built his eminence amongst wealthy, white plantation owners by treating enslaved workers. His work station was always based around the areas where enslaved black women and children were traded. While most of the healthcare work was carried out in plantation fields, a few “stubborn” cases were brought to physicians like Sims, so that the enslaved workers could quickly go back to producing and reproducing for their masters. Else, they were considered of no use.

Like most male doctors of the time, Sims initially hesitated to study gynaecology and treat female patients. However, he was drawn to the field when he had to save the life of a woman who was suffering from pelvic and back pain. For this, Sims had to look directly into her vagina. She was positioned in front of him on all fours, and he used just his bare fingers to examine. This case was revolutionary in his career as it was the trailblazer to the modern speculum – a device used to see the walls of the vagina and cervix – used in modern times.

The woman was diagnosed with vesicovaginal fistula – a condition caused by a complicated childbirth where urine leaks out of the vagina. Thereafter, Sims started experimenting with medical surgeries to find a cure for this ailment. While it might appear that he did some path-breaking work in field of women’s reproductive health, there is a dark side to the story that is not always talked about.

Sims brutally exploited black women and enslaved children as he performed his medical trials on their bodies without anaesthesia or their consent. If the patients’ family provided clothing and paid taxes, Sims took temporary ownership of women until their treatment was completed thoroughly.

Also read: #BlackLivesMatter: Let’s Not Forget India’s Closeted Racism

Sims’ first patient, an 18-year-old girl named Lucy, was stripped naked and was forced to endure an hour-long surgery while screaming in pain as a dozen other doctors just simply watched her. For a long time, Sims’ fistula surgeries constantly kept failing, and after 30 operations on a 17-year-old enslaved woman named Anarcha, he claims to have “perfected” his methods. He used to operate on children using a shoemaker’s tool to pry their bones and loosen their skulls. Whenever his patients died, he’d never take the responsibility and instead would blame the patient’s mother and the black midwives who attended to them.

Sims’ ‘justification’ for not using anaesthesia was that black women and enslaved women “have thicker skin and did not experience pain” as much as white women did, and hence, once he was sure of his methods, he tried them with anaesthesia on white women.

Although he may have shattered glass ceilings by being the first man to bring ground-breaking changes in women’s reproductive health, his racially discriminatory beliefs and ill-treatment of black women and enslaved children was violative of basic human rights.

On April 17, 2018, Sims’ statue, that was erected in New York City’s Central Park, was taken down as a sign of protest. After the incident, many black women spoke of how the pain of the women and children who had been tortured had at least not gone unacknowledged, and that their names are being spoken aloud.

“As long as there is a racial privilege, racism will never end,” said Wayne Gerard Trotman, Trinidadian British writer. Even when one human being is deprived of their rights, the rights of us all are restrained too, and the answer to injustice can only be to end injustice, and not mute the oppressed.

We can never forget the names of these three women – Lucy, Anarcha, Bertha and many more. We must always keep in mind that the modern speculum used by gynaecologists today was made under the mercy of women who were forced to undergo unimaginable amounts of pain. No matter our skin, no matter our race, no matter our background, when we are all ripped off our skin, our blood is the same colour.

Say their names – Anarcha, Lucy, Bertha.

Tharika Sai is a first-year law student at O.P Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat, Haryana. She is passionate about writing and researching on the areas of human rights, feminism, and international Law. You can find her on Instagram @tharika_22.

Featured image credit: Reuters