The “Father of Modern Gynecology,” James Marion Sims, is celebrated all over the United States for his pioneering work in women’s reproductive health. What many overlook is his reputation for intrusive experimentation on Black slave women without their consent, or in his words, the most “memorable time” of his life. Sims’ controversial means of discovery is one in a long history of the ‘Black lab rat’ narrative.
Sims began his medical career by interning with a doctor, taking a three month course and studying for a year at Jefferson Medical College, South Carolina. During the mid-19th century, doctors did not have the same extensive and meticulous training those in the medical profession experience today. After completing his studies, he set up his practice in his hometown of Lancaster, South Carolina, but restarted in Montgomery, Alabama after the death of his first two patients. There, he built an eight-person hospital in the slave-trading district where plantation owners would take their human property to be treated.
Sims never had any interest in gynecological training. In fact, treating female organs was rarely done, as it was considered distasteful during that time. His interest was piqued by a white patient who he found to have vesicovaginal fistula, a childbirth complication. He examined her using the bent handle of a pewter spoon, which would later become the vaginal speculum. Upon discovering there was no known cure for the affliction, he took action and began experimenting for a cure in 1845. For slave women, the fistula would have prevented the immense amounts of reproduction needed for them to be proven valuable. Sims was temporarily given ownership of enslaved women until their fistula was treated.
The three slaves known to be part of the experiment are Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey. During the first operation, 18-year old Lucy, while completely naked, was perched on all fours with her head on her hands, screaming and crying in pain while others watched for an hour, according to Sims. She also contracted blood poisoning from Sims’ use of a sponge to collect urine from her bladder. He believed she would die but she recovered in two to three months.
After four years of experimentation and 30 operations on 17-year old Anarcha, Sims perfected his technique. Throughout his experiments he did not use anesthesia or any form of numbing because he believed the racist notion that Black people did not feel pain. Soon afterward, he began to perform the operation on white women, using anesthesia.
Not only did Sims cause pain and suffering to Black women, but his experiments also affected enslaved Black children. His first trials were an unsuccessful attempt to treat neonatal tetanus. Sims believed Black people were not as intelligent as white people because their skulls grew too fast for their brains to develop. To test this, he would use a shoemaker’s tool on Black children to wrench their bones apart and pry their skulls loose. If any of his patients died during the operation, he blamed the “sloth and ignorance of their mothers and the Black midwives who attended them.”
Even some of his white coworkers said he took things too far.
J. Marion Sims was memorialized in Central Park, New York City and South Carolina, outside his old medical school. In January 2018, the New York City Mayor’s Advisory Commission decided to relocate the statue to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. It was removed from Central Park on April 17, 2018. In its place, there will be a plaque recognizing the three young women, Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey, and their suffering for the sake of medical and scientific advancement.