The Father of Gynecology used Black Women as Guinea Pigs

It is no doubt that slavery is considered to be one of the darkest chapters in human history. The sinister practices which were perpetuated by one group who felt superior over another provides substantial insight into the horror and terror of slavery.

James Marion Sims is widely viewed as one of the most controversial figures in the history of medicine. Questions rose about the use of ethics in developing his medical techniques.

Born in Lancaster County, South Carolina, in 1813, James Marion Sims practiced medicine at a time when treating black women was visualized to be a taboo. Conversely, doctors didn’t undergo the same tiresome and impactful coursework and expert training as opposed to now. He served in 1876 as the President of the American Medical Association and in 1880, President of the American Gynecological Society – an indigenous founder. He invented the Vaginal Speculum, a tool used for dilation and examination. He furthermore pioneered a surgical technique to repair Vesicovaginal Fistula, an opening that develops between the bladder and the wall of the vagina which consequently leads to a urine leak out of the vagina.


After his internship spell with a doctor which included a three month course and studying for a year at Jefferson Medical College, Sims began practice in his hometown, Lancaster.

However, ill luck hampered his practice due to the death of his first two patients. He therefore relocated to Montgomery, Alabama.

In Montgomery, Sims gained notoriety and recognition among the rich white plantation owners given that he rendered service to their enslaved workers. He built an eight-person hospital in the heart of the trading district in Montgomery. Some healthcare took place on the plantations while some rather severe and difficult cases were brought to Sims who managed to patch up the enslaved workers. You must understand that reproduction among the slaves were key. Sims was assigned to see to it that the workers are able to produce and reproduce – otherwise, they could just be a liability.

Similar to most doctors in the 19th century, Sims had little interest in treating female patients. Well, he possessed no specific training after all.


The genesis which propelled Sims into female healthcare was when he was called to administer care to a patient who had fallen off a horse wherein she injured her pelvic and encountered back pain. The treatment of this woman’s injury required examination on her vagina. Having to tend to treatment, she was asked to position on all fours – leaning forward. Sim then used his fingers to help him see inside. Based on results from the examination, Sims concluded that the patient had Vesicovaginal Fistula. There was no known cure for the ailment at that time.

He began experimenting in 1845 with surgical techniques to treat such fistulas.

Women protesting with stained overalls for the removal of Sims’s statue.


In his Autobiography, The Story Of My Life, Sims wrote that the women had “clamored” for the operation so that it would relieve their discomfort. However, it wasn’t clear whether they consented or not.

Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey were three females who suffered from fistula and were sought-after by Sims.

Lucy was an 18-year-old. She had given birth a few months prior and hadn’t been able to control her bladder since. During the process, it was customary for patients to pose completely naked, perched on their knees, and bend forward onto their elbows so their heads rested on their shoulder. Lucy underwent an hour-long surgery, screaming and crying out in severe pain, as nearly a dozen other doctors witnessed. Lucy’s agony was loud. She became extremely ill due to his controversial use of a sponge to drain the urine away from the bladder, which led her to contract blood poisoning. I thought she was going to die… It took Lucy two or three months to recover entirely from the effects of the operation,” Sims wrote in his autobiography.

For quite a while, Sims’s fistula surgeries were evidently unsuccessful. After carrying out thirty operations on one woman, a 17-year-old enslaved women named Anarcha who had had a very traumatic labor and delivery, he eventually “perfected” his method after years of experimentation.

He began practice on white women using anesthesia which was new to the Medical field at the time. Sims failed to use anesthesia on black women because he was of the misguided belief that black people felt no pain. This gave room for further scientific havoc.


Sims possessed racist beliefs and a superiority complex over black people. He believed African Americans were less intelligent than white people because their skills grew too quickly around their brain. Children were not excluded from his medical madness. He tested surgical treatments on enslaved black children in an effort to treat neonatal tetanus – with no amount of success. Sims developed a mode of operation on African American children using a shoemaker’s tool to disfigure their bones apart and effectively loosen their skulls.

Sims moved to New York in the 1850s where he continued testing controversial medical treatments on his patients. For any demise of his patients, he will blatantly apportion blame to “the sloth and ignorance of their mothers and the Black midwives who attended them.”

Protesters demand removal of Central Park statue of 19th century doctor who experimented on slave women.

The practices of Sims doubtlessly faced outrageous uproar and scrutiny within the medical community. Some of his colleagues had objected with emphasis on his experiments, believing he took things too far. The extent to which human lives especially black lives were lost has rendered the personality of Sims an infamous one with calls for monumental statues to fall.

Author: Abu Bakarr Jalloh

Abu Bakarr Jalloh is a Sierra Leonean content writer, author, Neo Pan-African and founder of The African Dream, an online platform for inspiring, positive and compelling African stories. Contact: WhatsApp: +23276211583