If taking a stroll through New York’s Central Park, one might see the statue of Dr. James Marion Sims. Known as the “father of gynecology,” His greatest achievement and claim to fame was curing the problem of the vesico-vaginal fistula. However, controversy exists because he found his surgical cure, use of silver sutures and speculum from performing a number of trial and error procedures on slave women from 1845 to 1849.
Since the mid- twentieth century, academia has debated whether Sims was an ingenuous doctor who furthered the progression of medical science for women or a 19th monster who conducted painful unethical experiments on women who couldn’t say “No.”
In 1993 Durrenda Ojanuga, Ph.D. wrote that the problem with Sims’ experiments were that he used the institution of slavery to harbor human guinea pigs to perfect his procedures. Violating all concepts of human rights and medical ethics, the women were property subject to Sims’ trial and error experiments.
According to Ojanuga, such slave experimentation was not popular at the time. Rumors and whispers even began to circulate around town about the young doctor who kept experimental slaves. Other doctors would engage in experiments often using white patients with informed consent, according to Ojanuga. The slave women possessed no agency, no means to deny the upwards 30 operations endured for four years each. As property of their master, it was he who determined that they should be submitted to experimentation, not them.
Ojanuga writes that after the procedure was perfected, White women wanted the vesico- vaginal fistula operation as well. However, no White woman could endure the operation without anesthesia and it was only after use of anesthetics that Sims was able to do the surgery at the Women’s Hospital he later founded.
Although it was commonly believed that Blacks did not feel the same pain as Whites, the truth was that the slave women, as human chattel, could not cease the operation like the White women. In a time when investigation of almost any malady involving the vagina was considered improper amongst White male doctors, slave women served as the means to further Euro-American medicine due to their subjugated status. Being powerless, they could only endure the extreme pain and embarrassment that was repeatedly administered. Sims experiments are “…a classic example of the evils of slavery,” wrote Ojanuga, “and the misuse of human subjects for medical research.”