Historian and physician Vanessa Worthington Gamble interviewed about the disturbing story of the founder of gynecology

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, gynecology

VEDANTAM: This is Vanessa Northington Gamble. She's a physician and medical historian at the George Washington University. We asked her to come in to tell us the story of J. Marion Sims who is memorialized in statues not only in South Carolina but also in Montgomery, Ala. and Central Park in New York City.

GAMBLE: He started a clinic in Montgomery, Ala. And at the time, in order to survive financially, he also was a plantation physician where he took care of the enslaved on plantations.

VEDANTAM: This is where the story of Sims becomes complicated because, yes, the inscription on a statue in South Carolina is true. He did invent techniques that help women to this day. He treated slaves as well as high society. He once treated Empress Eugenie, the last empress of France. But there is something not mentioned on the inscriptions on the statues.

GAMBLE: Starting in 1845, he started to conduct experiments on enslaved women. And why we talk about Sims today and why that statue is there is that he perfected a technique to repair a condition called vesicovaginal fistula, and let me tell you what that means. It basically means that there is an opening between the vagina and also the bladder or the vagina and the rectum, which usually comes after traumatic childbirth. And Sims started in 1845 - 1846 according to some sources - a series of experiments to repair these fistulas.

VEDANTAM: This condition was highly stigmatized and dangerous for these women. There was no treatment. So on the one hand, you could say Sims was doing what doctors are supposed to do by taking these women on as patients. But there's another side to what Sims did. He wanted to be a trailblazing researcher, and these women, their bodies, became props in his journey of scientific discovery.

GAMBLE: These women were property. These women could not consent. These women also had value to the slaveholders for production and reproduction - how much work they could do in the field, how many enslaved children they could produce. And by having these fistulas, they could not continue with childbirth and also have difficulty working.

VEDANTAM: There are 10 slave women central to the story. Three are named by Sims in his writing. These women were brought to him by their owners. The first woman was named Anarcha.

GAMBLE: Anarcha was a 17-year-old enslaved woman who had just undergone a very traumatic delivery. Some sources say that she was in labor for three days. At first, he did not want to treat her. He was not interested in treating women. But then what he started to do from a period from 1845 to 1849, he did a series of experimental surgeries on these women. And he uses sutures to try to close up this opening.

VEDANTAM: Now, presumably, this would have been painful.

GAMBLE: It was very painful, and he talks about how Lucy, one of the three women, almost felt as if she were going to die, that she cried out in pain so much because of these surgeries. But at the same time, he writes that the women wanted the surgery because they did not want to have the condition anymore.

VEDANTAM: Were the surgeries that he was performing on them performed without anesthesia?

GAMBLE: They were performed without anesthesia. There was a belief at the time that black people did not feel pain in the same way. They were not vulnerable to pain, especially black women. So that they had suffered pain in other parts of their lives and their pain was ignored. ...

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