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Experimental Surgery On Slave Women Advanced Female Care

As protests continue across the South against confederate statues, protestors in Columbia, S.C. are targeting the statue of a pre-confederate historic figure.

It is of J. Marion Sims, the Father of Gynecology, who developed some medical techniques still being used today.

But to make to make all of these medical advances, Sims performed experimental surgeries on Black women slaves. This has raised serious ethical questions, equal to the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments involving Black men in the 1930s and 40s.

Historians, social and political activists say that Sims used enslaved Black women as medical guinea pigs.

Sims, born in South Carolina, is called the Father of Gynecology. He practiced medicine in Alabama and in New York City, where a similar monument honoring him exists and was vandalized in late August with spray paint.

Another Sims statue stands on the capitol grounds of Montgomery, Alabama. A painting with the image of Sims and other White men hovering over a partially clothed Black patient was removed from the University of Alabama at the Birmingham Center for Advanced Medical Studies after protests.

The woman in that painting, according to a Washington Post article in 2006, was Anarcha Wescott, one of Sims’ Black female slave patients who underwent 30 procedures to help him perfect techniques. Sims operated on her without pain killers, which, in the 1830s were under development and were not widely used.

Whether she and others gave him consent to work on them is being debated. Sims said Black people were able to absorb great physical pain, a quality he admired.

The first Black mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, Steve Benjamin, said he is more offended by the statue of Sims than the confederate monuments.

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In Alabama, Sims practiced medicine from 1835 to 1849 and invented the speculum and other instruments still in use by gynecologists.

He pioneered surgery for fistula, a condition which leaves women incontinent after child birth. Historians said the treatment revolutionized the field of gynecology. He also performed the first successful gall bladder surgery and artificial insemination.

Born in 1813 in Lancaster County, S.C., Sims graduated from the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

He opened a medical practice in Lancaster Pa., but his practice failed within a year after two infants under his care died.

He then moved to Alabama and settled in Macon County where he treated mostly Black slaves working on nearby plantations.

According to his biography, “The Story of My Life,” Sims built a hospital where he served the slaves in the corner of his yard. He began to treat fistula, then an incurable disease, caused by child birth, which disabled a women to control her bladder.

According to his biography, Sims describes surgeries he performed on three Black slave women named Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey.

Sims made a business deal involving two of them with their owners: “If you will give me Anarcha and Betsey for experiments, I agree to perform no experiments or operations on either of them to endanger their lives and will not charge a cent for keep for them. But you must pay their taxes and clothe them. I will keep them at my expense.”

Anarcha was a mulatto of 14 years of age. Lucy was about 18 and had given birth to a child two months earlier and was incontinent.

Sims said Lucy’s bladder was destroyed during childbirth leaving an opening between the vagina and the bladder at least two inches or more.
Sims noted in his biography that the Black women were able to withstand great pain and admired this ability.

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In his biography Sims wrote, “That was before the days of anesthetics and the poor girl, on her knees bore the operations with great heroism and bravery. I had about a dozen doctors there to witness the series of experiments … All of the doctors had seen my notes and often examined them, and agree that I was on the eve of a great discovery, and every one of them was interested in seeing me operate.”

Sims said it took Lucy two or three months to recover. His books said he also performed the procedure on another of the women, but he placed in her bladder a self-retaining catheter instead of a sponge.

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter

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