James Marion Sims: Monster or Miracle Worker? Essay

James Marion Sims: Monster or Miracle Worker? Essay

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Vesicovaginal fistula is a tear from the bladder or anus to the vagina that causes urine or feces to leak and can arise from physical complications from the birth of a child. In 1849, the American surgeon James Marion Sims was credited with being the first doctor to successfully repair this condition surgically (Ojanuga 1993). His methods included operations on 14 African American female slaves without the benefit of anesthesia. Many women underwent multiple operations, as many as 30 separate times (Macleod 1999). However, Sims is hailed as a heroic and noble contributor to the medical world and women’s health, yet his work only recently been questioned regarding his controversial operations on slaves. The issues surrounding Sims’ works concern the morality and ethics of Sims’ operations and whether the “ends justified the means” when looking at the findings vs. the methods. Undoubtedly, Sims contributed volumes of knowledge and expertise to gynecology by pioneering new technologies and techniques that were surgically successful (Zacharin 2008). After observing postcolonial society through Sims’ lasting discoveries, his critics and supporters, and his own autobiography, I believe that the production of Sims’ surgical contributions came at far too high of a cost. His barbarous actions helped to perpetuate the degradation of women, and African American female slaves in particular, and also promote slavery. This topic is important because the medical world has a responsibility to acknowledge the roots and founders of its discipline and cannot turn a blind eye to these appalling acts, as so many textbooks and medical journals have. Since its birth, the politics of medicine has perpetuated a racial hegemony and the combination of Sims ...


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6) Sims, J. M., (1855). Story of my Life. New York: D. Appleton and Company.
7) Spettel, Sara, and Mark Donald White. "The portrayal of J. Marion Sims' controversial surgical legacy." The Journal of urology 185.6 (2011): 2424-2427.
8) Sterling, Dorothy. (1984). We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Norton.
9) Wall, L.L. (2006). The medical ethics of Dr J Marion Sims: a fresh look at the historical record. Journal of Medical Ethics, 32(6), 346-350. doi: 10.1136/jme.2005.012559
10) Zacharin, R. B., (2000). A History of Obstetric Vesicovaginal Fistula. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery, 70(12), 851-854. DOI: 10.1046/j.1440-1622.2000.01990.x
11) Washington, Harriet A. Medical apartheid: The dark history of medica experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present. Random House LLC, 2006.


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