A bit of context, please

sims
Image by Eden, Janine, and Jim via Flickr

Some of the current statues under attack, this time in New York City in addition to various locations in the south, is of a Victorian medical practitioner, J. Marion Sims. Already appalled by the unwillingness of  people to understand the mixed historical contribution of individuals like Robert E. Lee, I nevertheless find this one particularly provoking given my current studies.

The Washington Post article is here. Although it contains within itself a quotation from Sims’ autobiography making it clear that the surgeries in question were conducted “before anesthetics”, the protestors (and the title of the article) make the horrified announcement that he did it “without anesthetics”, as if he were practicing today.

Willing to consider he might be a butcher of enslaved young woman, I did what all historians to and went to the source. His autobiography is here for all to read. As near as I can tell on a quick overview reading, two of his crucial “experiments” on enslaved women with painful fistulas were not only consented to freely by the women involved (which the article says is doubtful), but cured them, because he persisted in working on the problem after others would have given up.

After only an hour of cursory research, it is clear to me that this doctor may have invented the speculum and a suturing technique that saved women from an extraordinarily painful condition. According to the article, he also performed the first successful gallbladder surgery. Although clearly a man of his time, his book shows compassion for all “negroes” under his care. Anesthesia was a rare, expensive, dangerous, and unproven technology at the time.

The women with blood on their clothes protesting the statues need to check out some context. I cannot find in Sims’ autobiography anything about him believing that black women can’t feel pain, as quoted by one of the protesters in the article. In fact, Sims describes the “constant pain and burning” that one patient, Anarcha, felt due to her condition. On another patient, Betsey, he doesn’t do a rectal examination because

I thought that this poor woman was suffering enough without my doing so disagreeable a thing

Saying people should “study history” doesn’t quite cover this sort of thing. What’s missing is any curiosity about alternate narratives, about discovering the history of things (like surgery) that we take for granted and that any of us might need. Admittedly, I only looked at his own report. But it at least provides an alternative explanation to the story that this man ruthlessly used enslaved women for experiments without conscience or a desire to help humanity. Context can provide a little balance, which these days would be a good thing.