10th February 1855 A Racist Vivisector at the Foundations of Gynaecology

The Butcher of Central Park

On this day back in 1855, the Woman’s Hospital in New York City was founded. This was the first hospital in the world to be established for conditions specific to women, and from this beginning the study and discovery of treatments for childbirth injuries, non-malignant and cancerous tumours and female infections would eventually emerge. While On This Deity applauds the inception of much-needed bespoke medical care for women, this is oddly not a day to celebrate – for the founder of the Woman’s Hospital, J. Marion Sims, was a misogynistic and racist butcher who secretly subjected scores of underprivileged women to excruciatingly painful and sadistic medical experiments.

The so-called “Father of Gynaecology”, Sims became world famous and lauded by his peers for pioneering reparative surgery for vesico-vaginal fistulas – a debilitating and embarrassing injury resulting from prolonged and traumatic childbirth. But the driving force behind his discovery was not compassion for womankind. No. Sims was in fact a self-serving sadist who preyed upon the poorest and most vulnerable women, putting them through unimaginable agonies, to further his own career.

Sims first noticed the gap in the female surgical market when, as a slave owner in South Carolina, his female slaves became good for nothing after suffering traumatic childbirth. With other local ‘masters’ complaining of similar losses of productivity, Sims set out to resolve this white man’s inconvenience.

In 1845, he constructed a makeshift hospital in his backyard and inaugurated a series of gynaecological operations on countless enslaved African women who had no choice but to comply. Three women in particular –Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy – were singled out by Sims as his favoured guinea pigs; 17-year-old Anarcha was subjected to thirty-four experimental operations for a prolapsed uterus. These experiments were often performed with male spectators present, without any respect for female modesty. And, unbelievably, Sims denied his victims the benefit of anaesthesia. “None but a woman could have borne the pain,” Sims conceded, exposing his rampant misogyny. He would expose himself further still as a racist human vivisector when he declared black women “endured pain as well as dogs or rabbits do.”

For four long years, Sims subjected his victims to endless painful, undignified experiments. Many of these women died from infection; indeed, so alarming were his methods that several of Sims’ medical peers and even his own family urged him to stop experimenting. But Sims, believing his was a ‘divine mission,’ refused to quit. When he ran out of female slaves, he simply ‘rented’ more. “I am going on with this series of experiments to the end,” Sims insisted. “It matters not what it costs.”

By 1853, Sims perfected his reparative procedure and moved to New York to advance his career. He never admitted publicly that he’d experimented on slaves and, in the woodcuts that accompanied his lectures, deceptively portrayed his earlier patients as white women. After convincing a group of philanthropic New York women that his motives were sincere and securing their financial support, Sims opened the Woman’s Hospital on 10th February 1855. His new wealthy white patients were grateful beneficiaries of his surgical discoveries, with the advantage of anaesthesia of course. But there was no such relief for his new guinea pigs. In the early years of the Woman’s Hospital, Sims continued his anaesthesia-free experiments on destitute Irish women – including such barbaric procedures as clitoridectomies and ovariotomies – before an audience of male observers. Mary Smith, like Anarcha, was subjected to over thirty operations.

In 1894, a year after his death, a statue of J. Marion Sims was erected in New York’s Central Park. That this proto Josef Mengele should be the first physician in the United States to receive such an honour is an offense to the countless women he butchered. The quest for medical advancement can never never ever be justified by such barbaric inhumanity.

And so, on this anniversary of the founding of the Woman’s Hospital, we salute the unsung heroines Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy, Mary Smith and all the nameless women who suffered so tragically at the hands of J. Marion Sims.

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