A bit of context, please

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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.

Midhurst Mystery

I received a mystery yesterday, in the package with a copy of Wells’ text-books (second edition, and beautiful). My correspondent, Simon Wheeler of Wheeler’s Bookshop in Midhurst, kindly shared with me a page from a book called Midhurst Town: Then and Now by V. and B. Mitchell, 1983.

It contained this caption on a photo of Church Street, Midhurst in the 1900s.


A Mrs. Allin arranged the post for Wells at the Grammar School?
This is the first I’ve heard of her. Well’s autobiography says he came up with the idea of contacting Byatt for an “usher” job when he was miserable in his indenture at Hyde’s Drapers in Southsea:

Finally I had the brilliant idea of writing to Mr. Horace Byatt at Midhurst.

Although Wells notes that, “I do not remember now the exact order of events in my liberation nor when it was I wrote to Byatt”, he was two years into the indenture so it was some time in summer 1883. He would be on his way to Midhurst in August.

There is no mention in Wells’ autobiography of Mrs. Allin, nor the ironmonger’s shop. So I did a quick check around the web.

The West Sussex Records office, where I had spent some time looking at the Grammar School prospectus, seems to have the records of the Allin Brothers’ business from 1879, but I doubt they would contain anything useful.

I also found the Allins’ son George, on a memorial web page  of those who had fallen in the Great War – his name is inscribed on the memorial in the town centre. George was born near the end of 1883, just after Wells returned to Midhurst to take up the position with Byatt. But Wells must have known Mrs. Allin (who would have been hugely pregnant with George when Wells arrived at Midhurst to teach) before this, if she helped him get the post.

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Courtesy of Simon Wheeler, Wheeler’s Bookshop, Midhurst

So this is the mystery. If Mrs. Allin (her given name was Elizabeth) had something to do with obtaining the teaching post for Wells, how did that occur? Did she know Horace Byatt and suggest to him that he hire Wells? How did she know Wells wanted out of his indenture? Did Wells write to her (there is no evidence of this) or did Byatt show her Wells’ letter or tell her about it? Or had H.G. confided in her somehow before he left Midhurst the first time, when he was 14, in spring of 1881?

Wells suggests that his mother, who was from Midhurst but was working and living at Uppark, knew nothing of his plans when he confronted her, pleading that she end his indenture and allow him to return to Midhurst, so it’s unlikely that either Byatt or Elizabeth Allin had contact with his Sarah Wells.

What might have been the connection?