On a sylvan stretch of New York’s patrician upper Fifth Avenue, just across from the New York Academy of Medicine, a colossus in marble, august inscriptions, and a bas-relief caduceus grace a memorial bordering Central Park. These laurels venerate the surgeon James Marion Sims, M.D., as a selfless benefactor of women. Nor is this the only statuary erected in honor of Dr. Sims. Marble monuments to his skill, benevolence, and humanity guard his native South Carolina’s statehouse, its medical school, the Alabama capitol grounds, and a French hospital. In the mid-nineteenth century, Dr. Sims dedicated his career to the care and cure of women’s disorders and opened the nation’s first hospital for women in New York City. […]
But this benevolent image vies with the detached Marion Sims portrayed in Robert Thom’s J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon, an oil representation of an experimental surgery upon his powerless slave Betsey. Sims stands aloof, arms folded, one hand holding a metroscope (the forerunner of the speculum) as he regards the kneeling woman in a coolly evaluative medical gaze. His tie and morning coat contrast with her simple servants’ dress, head rag, and bare feet.
The painting […] takes telling liberties with the historical facts. Thom portrays Betsey as a fully clothed, calm slave woman who kneels complacently on a small table, hand modestly raised to her breast, before a trio of white male physicians. Two other slave women peer around a sheet, apparently hung for modesty’s sake, in a childlike display of curiosity. This innocuous tableau could hardly differ more from the gruesome reality in which each surgical scene was a violent struggle between the slaves and physicians and each woman’s body was a bloodied battleground. Each naked, unanesthetized slave woman had to be forcibly restrained by the other physicians through her shrieks of agony as Sims determinedly sliced, then sutured her genitalia. The other doctors, who could, fled when they could bear the horrific scenes no longer. It then fell to the women to restrain one another. […]
Betsey’s voice had been silenced by history, but as one reads Sims’s biographers and his own memoirs, a haughty, self-absorbed researcher emerges, a man who bought black women slaves and addicted them to morphine in order to perform dozens of exquisitely painful, distressingly intimate vaginal surgeries. Not until he had experimented with his surgeries on Betsey and her fellow slaves for years did Sims essay to cure white women.
Was Sims a savior or a sadist? It depends, I suppose, on the color of the women you ask. Marion Sims epitomizes the two faces - one benign, one malevolent - of American medical research."
from the Introduction of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington
Going to be reading this, or at least parts of it during break. That means there’ll finally be some new content on this blog. This book seems super interesting and I don’t really know what to say about it because I feel its title says it all. Extremely important history to know, whether or not you plan to go into medicine/science/health.