Content warning: this article discusses slavery and unethical medical experimentation.
There are several dead men named as the “father” of different areas of medicine, but the most shocking is the father of gynecology: Dr. J. Marion Sims. This man was an American slave owner who practiced medicine in the mid-1800s.
Among his many medical experiments and achievements, Sims is widely recognized for his development of gynecological practices that are still in use today. Yes, this man is responsible for an early form of everyone’s favorite, the vaginal spectrum. Useful as it is, I wonder if a better, more comfortable alternative could be found if women had been present in the medical establishment from the beginning.
Dr. Sims misdeeds only begin with the spectrum. He experimented with new surgical solutions to a condition called vesicovaginal fistula, which is a particularly nasty condition that can happen during extended childbirth. He is credited with finding the first surgery that consistently repaired vesicovaginal fistula, something that generations of doctors had tried to solve. However, this important breakthrough in surgery was possible because Dr. Sims experimented on slaves who were subject to his trials without their consent.
Of the fourteen slaves he did experimental gynecological surgery on, he named three of them in his records: Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy. All three of these women suffered from vesicovaginal fistula. Dr. Sims operated on Anarcha over thirty times. It is important to note that Dr. Sims did not use anesthetics in his experimental surgery, even though they were available at the time.
According to Harriet A. Washington’s book about the history of medical experimentation on black people, Dr. Sims would never have been able to conduct so many experimental surgeries without exploiting slaves, because no white women would have agreed to it. Also, Dr. Sims believed that black women could endure more pain than white women, which is a dangerous and untrue stereotype that still exists today. This is one of the reasons why he never used anesthetics during his experiments.
The idea that black people can endure more pain than other groups comes from the history of undervaluing black people in America. Slave owners perpetrated the idea that black people could work harder and for longer because they are biologically different from white people, who could not withstand the same work.
Like many other manifestations of racism, this concept that black people are somehow unable to feel pain persists. Many white medical doctors believe that black people are biologically different from white people and allow this belief to inform their medical practice. The result of this, among other things, is that black people are substantially less likely to receive pain relief medication than white people.
The story of Dr. Sims and how he was named the “father of gynecology” is one of anti-blackness. It is important to know these stories that create the foundation for medicine, politics, and other areas of our lives. Without an uncensored understanding of how the modern systems of oppression were formed, it is unlikely that we can move forward and create real change.
Genuine Justice is a column about reproductive justice focusing on current events, historical perspectives and systematic racism in women’s healthcare.