James Marion Sims is known as the “Father of Modern Gynecology”, but he didn’t get that title by practicing medicine, at least in the way we understand it today.
Historians have uncovered the shocking truth behind Sims’ work in the medical industry. In the late 1800s, he performed dozens of ethically bankrupt surgeries and experiments on enslaved women and girls to learn more about the diseases that affect the female body in what could now be described as torture.
His research won him praise all over the U.S. with half-a-dozen statues erected in his name. But history is catching up with Sims. We are looking back at this shameful period to pay tribute to all the women who suffered in the name of science.
Experimenting on Enslaved Women
When Sims was working his way up in the field of medicine, doctors didn’t have to undergo nearly as much training as they do today. He first entered the medical profession in 1813 after interning with a doctor, taking a three-month course, and studying for a year at Jefferson Medical College.
It’s safe to say that his knowledge of human anatomy and illness was limited at the time.
After setting up his first practice in Lancaster, he eventually relocated to Montgomery, Alabama after his first two patients died. In his new home, he made a career out of caring for rich, white plantation owners and their slaves.
Vanessa Gamble, university professor of medical humanities at George Washington University, says Sims’ work was rooted in the slave trade. He performed many services onsite at the plantation, but slave owners would often send Sims home with some of their property where he would fix them up just enough so they could keep working and reproducing for their masters.
At first, Sims wasn’t interested in treating women. The medical industry had little understanding of female anatomy. For many, examining and treating female organs was seen as offensive and unsavory.
Things changed when he was asked to treat a patient who had fallen off a horse. She was suffering from pelvic and back pain at the time. That’s when Sims discovered he had to examine her vagina to treat her injury. He had her get on all fours and he looked inside her body. His interaction eventually led to the discovery of the modern speculum: the bent handle of a pewter spoon.
Over the years, many enslaved women suffered from fistulas, an abnormal connection between organs. With no known cure or treatment, Sims started experimenting on these women in search of a cure.
But at the time, treating and caring for black patients was considered taboo in white society due to the racist notion that black people somehow don’t feel pain. He performed and experimented on enslaved black women without the use of anesthesia.
Records show that Sims essentially had temporary ownership over the women while they were under his care, as long as their owners paid taxes and provided clothing.
Sims found it helpful to work on women who were considered his property. “There was never a time that I could not, at any day, have had a subject for operation,” Sims said. He later referred to this period as the most “memorable time” of his life.
Examining Sim’s Reputation Today
In the years after the Civil War, Sims, who was a slave owner himself, emerged as one of the great pioneers of medicine. In 1876, he was named president of the American Medical Association. He also helped found the American Gynecological Society and later became president of the organization in 1880.
While Sims’ work helped paved the way for modern gynecology, historians continue to debate this highly controversial figure.
Some have argued that Sims was simply a man of his time, acting in accordance with the rules and laws observed throughout the 1800s. His defenders say that his work ultimately justified the means, helping women overcome fistulas.
His critics argue the opposite. They say the opinions and stories of the women Sims operated on have largely been forgotten by history. There’s no way to know whether these women consented to their care at the time, or how much they may have suffered in the process.
Bettina Judd, assistant professor of gender, women, and sexuality studies at the University of Washington, says consent isn’t always about “whether you can say yes; it’s also whether you can say no.”
The enslaved women Sims treated likely didn’t have a say in the matter. They were experimented on “in the name of science” with little control over their circumstances.
In one case, Sims operated on an 18-year-old girl named Lucy. She had just given birth several months prior and hadn’t been able to control her bladder since. Sims made his patients strip naked and get on all fours during the operation. Lucy endured an hour-long operation, screaming and crying in pain as a room full of white doctors watched.
“Lucy’s agony was extreme,” Sims wrote afterward. She became extremely ill due to his controversial use of a sponge to drain the urine away from the bladder, which led her to contract blood poisoning. “I thought she was going to die… It took Lucy two or three months to recover entirely from the effects of the operation,” he wrote.
For years, Sims’ fistula procedures were not effective. He once operated on a woman 30 times until he perfected his technique. He then started performing the procedure on white women, this time using anesthesia.
During his career, he also performed on enslaved children in an attempt to treat “trismus nascentium” (neonatal tetanus)—with little to no success. When any of Sims’s patients died, he would blame them for the mistake, pointing to “the sloth and ignorance of their mothers and the black midwives who attended them.” For years, he refused to admit there was anything wrong with his methods.
James Marion Sims remains one of the founding fathers of modern medicine, but his legacy has become a reminder of the country’s racist past.