James Marion Sims: Monster Or Miracle Worker?

3260 words - 13 pages

Vesicovaginal fistula is a tear from the bladder or anus to the vagina that causes urine or feces to leak and can arise from physical complications from the birth of a child. In 1849, the American surgeon James Marion Sims was credited with being the first doctor to successfully repair this condition surgically (Ojanuga 1993). His methods included operations on 14 African American female slaves without the benefit of anesthesia. Many women underwent multiple operations, as many as 30 separate times (Macleod 1999). However, Sims is hailed as a heroic and noble contributor to the medical world and women’s health, yet his work only recently been questioned regarding his controversial operations on slaves. The issues surrounding Sims’ works concern the morality and ethics of Sims’ operations and whether the “ends justified the means” when looking at the findings vs. the methods. Undoubtedly, Sims contributed volumes of knowledge and expertise to gynecology by pioneering new technologies and techniques that were surgically successful (Zacharin 2008). After observing postcolonial society through Sims’ lasting discoveries, his critics and supporters, and his own autobiography, I believe that the production of Sims’ surgical contributions came at far too high of a cost. His barbarous actions helped to perpetuate the degradation of women, and African American female slaves in particular, and also promote slavery. This topic is important because the medical world has a responsibility to acknowledge the roots and founders of its discipline and cannot turn a blind eye to these appalling acts, as so many textbooks and medical journals have. Since its birth, the politics of medicine has perpetuated a racial hegemony and the combination of Sims and his procedures on slaves only deepened the roots of racism and its abuse in science.
Medical experimentation on slaves was not new in 1850. For example, Dr. Dugas pioneered eye surgery procedures on slaves and Dr. Boylston had administered 250 smallpox inoculations on black men and women (Washington 2006). Usually, with medical experimentation comes a web of paperwork and informed consent contracts that are presented to the patient, however American slaves obviously were not offered this choice and were unwillingly operated on and vivisected for the benefit of their white experimenter. In the 19th century, vesicovaginal fistula was more common in black women than white women due to a Vitamin D deficiency in malnourished slaves. The increase in this condition among African American women was attributed to the ignorance of midwives and their unskilled delivery of babies, which would then cause the tear of tissue from giving birth to a child (Washington 2006).
In the mid 1800’s, Dr. Sims performed his invasive experiments on African-American women without anesthesia and is now glorified for his notable contributions to gynecology. Some of the lasting contributions from Sims’ work include the “Sims’ position” for...

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