I first learned of Dr. J. Marion Sims in 1986 during a gynecology lecture in my second year at the University Of Alabama, School Of Medicine.
As the inventor of the vaginal speculum, he was introduced to us as the “father of gynecology,” breaking norms of the medical community of his time, who considered the study of the female reproductive system “repugnant.” Sims also perfected a groundbreaking surgical technique in the 1840s, repairing a particularly nasty complication of obstructed childbirth–vesicovaginal fistula. The women afflicted with this condition were social pariahs, leaking and dribbling urine through their vaginas.
Because of the lack of access to maternal care, the female slave population was particularly vulnerable to vesicovaginal fistula. As the physician to plantations near his Montgomery, Alabama home, Sims first became aware of this condition when a slave woman was brought to him. He then sought out other patients with this condition to work out a surgical procedure to cure them. Working with about twelve different women over four years, Sims was eventually able to perfect the technique. Because his earliest attempts failed, he repeatedly operated on the same women before he succeeded.
This is the history we were told. Dr. J. Marion Sims was a hero of medical advancement.
In 2005, an article appeared in our local newspaper calling attention to complaints about a painting commissioned and displayed by my medical school while I was a student. The painting depicted Sims and other famous Alabama physicians surrounding a Black female patient. I was confused. These were our heroes! There were further complaints about depicting Dr. Sims, in particular, because he had operated on non-consenting slave women without anesthesia. I had not thought of it that way. It was not presented to us that way. I reasoned that he was merely a product of his time and place, and anesthesia was barely in use at that time. But I understood the optics this painting presented by depicting white men standing over a partially clothed Black woman.
The controversy surrounding Dr. Sims continued as his memorial statues were moved, removed, or destroyed in Alabama, South Carolina, and New York. As ethicists wrote articles and debated his work and legacy, my consciousness began to shift.
At the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, in September 2019, I was again confronted with Dr. Sims. The museum traces the history of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights struggles, the “War on Drugs,” and mass incarceration. I was overwhelmed and deeply affected, overcome by my shared white guilt. Towards the exit, we were asked to consider a series of questions, one of which was, “Should we continue to honor Dr. J. Marion Sims?”
When I returned home, I began to read more about him, digging into his later life. I discovered that he was a proponent and practitioner of elective oophorectomy and even clitoridectomy of women deemed “unruly” by their husbands. This I could not abide! I realized that my white privilege was showing up. I had not seen him for the racist he was, but I was now all too aware of his misogyny. I realized that I had been insensitive about his attitudes toward slaves, but when my worth as an independent woman was questioned, I was incensed.
Was he the father of gynecology or a combination of racist misogynists? I think more of the latter!
Renee Brown Harmon, MD, resides in Birmingham, Alabama where she has recently retired from a twenty-nine-year career in family medicine. She is an author, speaker, and hiker. Her website is https://www.reneeharmon.com/, and she can be followed on Facebook @Renee Harmon, Author and Instagram @reneeharmon_writesness and Twitter at marionmccrarymd.