In just a few days, it’ll be exactly 136 years ago that Dr. J. Marion Sims died on November 13, 1883. In the famous words of the great Jackie “Moms” Mabley, “They say you shouldn’t say nothin’ about the dead unless it’s good. He’s dead. Good!”
It is good that this particular person, Sims, is dead. In fact, if he had never been born, twelve enslaved Black women would’ve never had to endure the unimaginably hellish, the brutally excruciating, and the devastatingly humiliating medical torture he sadistically inflicted upon them without any anesthesia whatsoever.
Among that dozen were Anarcha, shown above, along with Betsy and Lucy (who nearly died from sepsis after Sims had left a sponge in her urethra and bladder). The names of the other nine are unknown to historians. And each one of the twelve was experimented on over and over again for five consecutive years, with Anarcha suffering the most in 30 separate operations.
Known as the “Modern-Day Father of Gynecology,” the avowedly pro-slavery Sims, born in South Carolina in 1813, purchased and also rented enslaved Black women to experiment on as human guinea pigs. He did this in order to ultimately provide safe and effective treatment for white women who had a childbirth obstruction, which, in medical jargon, is called vesico-vaginal fistula. It occurs when a woman’s bladder, cervix, vagina, and bowels become entangled between the fetal skull and the mother’s pelvis, blocking blood circulation causing tissue death, thereby leading to decayed tissue sliding off and producing a hole. As urine and also feces collect in that hole, they begin to seep out, resulting in irritation, infection, scarring, urine/fecal incontinence, and flatulence- altogether producing what one 19th-century physician described as “an intolerable stench.”
Sims moved north to Philadelphia in 1834 where he attended Jefferson Medical College and graduated a year later. Following the death of his first two patients (who happened to be white) and following a mediocre career as a surgeon, he moved to Macon County, Alabama in 1837 where until 1840 he worked as a “plantation physician” with “a partnership in a large practice among rich plantations” as noted by authors Wendy Brinker in “A Dr. J. Marion Sims Dossier” and W. Gill Wylie in “Memorial Sketch of the Life of J. Marion Sims.”
It was in his capacity as the aforementioned “plantation physician” that he began experimenting on enslaved Blacks, both men and women, initially for crossed eyes, clubfeet, and cleft palates.
In 1840, he relocated to Montgomery, Alabama and established a backyard hospital that became the largest surgical hospital in the entire state, which the Alabama Hall of Fame in 1968 described as “the first women’s hospital in history.”
By the way, Montgomery had a nearly 70 percent Black population at that time. Therefore, Sims was able to have a field day playing his horrifically psychotic Dr. Frankenstein games.
In 1845 while treating a white woman who had a slipped uterus caused by falling off a horse, Sims concluded that by having her kneel with her chest up against her knees during which time he would digitally penetrate her sensitively, her vagina would become fully distended with air allowing him to clearly see how previous childbirth had injured her internal organs. This distension and view led him to postulate that he might be able to figure out how to cure vesico-vaginal fistulas.
Despite having absolutely no formal gynecological training whatsoever, Sims recklessly believed he could somehow cure vesico-vaginal fistula but realized it would require repeated and yearly trial and error. Therefore, he immediately decided to buy or rent enslaved Black women from their enslavers and cruelly experiment on them for the benefit of free white women.
From 1845 through 1849 and in blatant violation of the American Medical Association’s Code of Ethics and the Hippocratic Oath’s purpose mandating to physicians that, “First, do no harm,” Dr. Sims did many cruel experimental surgeries on enslaved Black women (only three of whom allegedly suffered from vesico-vaginal fistula) prior to coming up with a new and effective surgical technique that utilized a special type of silver wire he got a jeweler to design. Sims used it to suture and close the vesico-vaginal fistulas.
After his purported success, as recently uncovered by University of Alabama historian Durrenda Ojanuga, “Many white women came to Sims for treatment of vesico-vaginal fistula.... However, none of them, due to the pain, were able to endure a single operation.”
By the way, if you think that Sims is an aberration and that the medical profession’s treatment of Blacks has changed since the 1800s, consider the American Journal of Emergency Medicine’s 2019 report pointing out that “Compared to white patients, Black patients were 40 percent less likely to receive medication to ease acute pain....”
Consider National Public Radio’s 2017 news segment entitled “Remembering Anarcha” pointing out that “[Compared to white patients,] Black patients continue to receive less pain medication for broken bones and cancer. Black children receive less pain medication... for appendicitis....”
Consider the National Academy of Sciences’ 2016 study pointing out that “In a survey of 222 white medical students and residents, about half endorsed false beliefs about biological differences between Blacks and whites. And those who did also perceived Blacks as feeling less pain than whites and [those students and residents] were likely to suggest inappropriate medical treatment for Black patients.”
Today, vesico-vaginal fistulas are generally non-existent in the technologically developed world not because of the genius of that evil white doctor but because of the superhuman fortitude of those victimized enslaved Black women.
Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy (as well as the nine unknown others who we’ll call “The Strong Sistahs and Mothers”): Say their names.
Dr. Sims died in 1883. As “Moms” Mabley said about people like him, “Good!”
The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinions on phillytrib.com.