The nation is reeling from the racism exhibited by the protesters looking to “save” the statue of Robert E. Lee from destruction on the University of Virginia’s campus. They used the occasion as an excuse to spread their racist and anti-Semitic propaganda – a young woman died as a result. Lee’s memorial honors his role in the Civil War as leader of the Confederate army, a war that was fought for southern states right to own slaves.

All around the nation people are demanding that monuments dedicated to honoring soldiers of the Confederacy be taken down. But it is not just limited to those that fought. There are memorials that recognize the contributions of other people who lived during the time of slavery that are now being brought to the forefront. One of those is a statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims in Central Park in New York City. Once thought of as the “father of gynecology” new evidence points to horrific accounts of his treatment and experimentation on Black female slaves. He is accused of operating without the permission of patients and deliberately not using anesthesia on Black women. Brynn Holland of History.com writes:

From his examination, Sims could see that the patient had a vesicovaginal fistula. With no known cure for the ailment, Sims began experimenting in 1845 with surgical techniques to treat such fistulas. If the patients’ masters provided clothing and paid taxes, Sims effectively took ownership of the women until their treatment was completed. He later reflected in his autobiography The Story of My Life on the advantages he found to working on people that were essentially his property: “There was never a time that I could not, at any day, have had a subject for operation.” According to Sims, this was the most “memorable time” of his life.

Now, activists, doctors and other groups are calling for removal of the statue that commemorates his work citing his experiments on Black women and his history of racist ideologies.

But some dispute this accounting of his work and methods including Dr. L. Lewis Wall, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis (WUS). Wall has worked extensively with women in Africa who suffer from the condition that Sims was treating, obstetric vesicovaginal fistula which is an injury that is the result of prolonged labor “in which an abnormal opening forms between a woman’s bladder and vagina, resulting in urinary incontinence. ”

In a paper published by the National Institutes of Health, Wall issued a strong and detailed denunciation of the attacks on Sims character using historical references and documentation. Regarding the accusation that Sims deliberately operated on Black women without anesthesia he wrote,

Why did Sims not use anaesthesia when carrying out these operations? Was he an “anaesthetic racist,” as has some authors allege? Vanessa Northington Gamble—for example maintains that, in contrast to the way he treated
slaves, Sims only operated on white women using anaesthesia.4 The chronology of events is extremely important here. Sims grew up as a surgeon in the days before anaesthetics and was accustomed, as were all of his contemporaries, to the pitfalls and requirements of preanaesthetic surgery. Durrenda Ojanuga writes: “He performed his first operation on a slave woman named Lucy. Lucy was operated on without anaesthetics as Sims was unaware of the advances which had been made in this area of medicine.”9 This statement is not true. Sims began his fistula operations on his enslaved patients in late 1845, before the anaesthetic properties of ether were known. Ether anaesthesia was not discovered and publicly demonstrated in Boston until October 16, 1846, nearly one year later.2

On the charge that Sims operated without consent, Wall quotes Sim’s contemporary description of what he did:

Sims gave numerous accounts of these early fistula operations during the course of his career, and although they differ in some details, they all state quite plainly that he discussed what he proposed to do and obtained consent from the patients themselves before undertaking any operations. Writing in the New York Medical Gazette and Journal of Health in January 1855 for example, Sims declared:

For this purpose [therapeutic surgical experimentation] I was fortunate in having three young healthy colored girls given to me by their owners in Alabama, I agreeing to perform no operation without the full consent of the patients, and never to perform any that would, in my judgment, jeopard [sic] life, or produce greater mischief on the injured organs — the owners agreeing to let me keep them (at my own expense) till I was thoroughly convinced whether the affection could be cured or not.21

If these women were suffering from vesicovaginal fistula they, just like any other woman, would have wanted to do something about it.

Wall writes:

Consider the following description of what it was like to be a woman with a vesicovaginal fistula in the mid-19th century, given by Dr. P. M. Kollock at the annual meeting of the Georgia State Medical Society in April 1857:

The poor woman [with a vesicovaginal fistula] is now reduced to a condition of the most piteous description, compared with which, most of the other physical evils of life sink into utter insignificance. The urine passing into the vagina as soon as it is secreted, inflames and excoriates its mucous lining, covering it with calcareous depositions, and causing great suffering. It trickles constantly down her thighs, irritates the integument with its acrid qualities, keeps her clothing constantly soaked and exhales without cessation its peculiar odour, [sic] insupportable to herself and those all around her.

In cases where the sloughing has been extensive, and the loss of substance of the tissues great, and where neither palliative nor curable means have availed for the relief of the sufferer, she has been compelled to sit constantly on
a chair or stool, with a hole in the seat, through which the urine descends into a vessel beneath.19

There is no doubt that Black women have suffered at the hands of the medical community and still do as their feelings, opinions, and health are often discounted. Moreover Black women’s bodies have historically not belonged to them as they have been claimed and raped by the state and by white men. It may be that any statue of Sims should come down for just that reason, if no other.

-Jan Harrison

 

 

 

 

1 COMMENT

  1. You don’t address whether or not in 1846 he began using anaesthesia on black womens immediately after the discovery, if ever at all.

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