February is Black History Month - Examining Dr. J. Marion Sims' Infamous Role as the "Father of Gynecology"

behind sheet hero.pngFebruary is Black History Month and Science & Sensibility will be covering this topic through a variety of posts this that focus on different aspects of reproductive health outcomes and reproductive justice topics that impact families of color.  Today, I wanted to share a bit about Dr. James Marion Sims, who is often referred to as the "Father of Modern Gynecology."

Dr. Sims was a physician who practiced in the middle part of the 1800s both in both the Southeastern and Northeastern part of the United States. He is best known for the development of a surgical technique to repair vaginal fistulas that resulted from complications that occurred during childbirth.  He also invented a speculum used in gynecological care as well as the "exaggerated Sims position" that I have shared during childbirth education classes. (More on that later.)

Marion Sims is a very controversial figure.  He performed almost all of his research, experimentation and technique refinement on Black slaves who came from surrounding plantations around where he practiced.  These practice surgeries were done without anesthesia and the women who were operated on were not able to provide consent. (As slaves, the owners were in the position to provide the consent for them.)  Many of them were experimented on repeatedly in order to support Sims's experimentation and refinement of both procedures and equipment.

There was a statue commemorating J. Marion Sims in Central Park, Manhattan, in New York state that was removed last April as the truth about Sims' practice was examined in light of human rights, ethics, and racism.  The statue was viewed as a "symbol of hate" for all that it represented.  The decision to remove the statue was unanimous amongst the New York City Public Design Commission.

There is an amazing play that has been written by Charly Evans Simpson called "Behind the Sheet."  This play tells 'the forgotten story of a community of enslaved black women who involuntarily enabled the discovery. In 1840s Alabama, Philomena assists a doctor - her owner - as he performs experimental surgeries on her fellow slave women, trying to find a treatment for the painful post-childbirth complications known as fistulas. Reframing the origin story of modern gynecology, Behind the Sheet tells how these women supported each other, and questions who, and what, history remembers."

The play can be seen at the Ensemble Studio Theatre through February 10th.  I am very hopeful that this play will travel to other venues around the country so that it can be seen and witnessed by many more people.  This essay by Rich Kelley takes a look at the scientific and historical context of this play and provides more information on Marion Sims and his work.

Studio 360, Public Radio International (PRI) did a great piece "Behind Behind the Sheet" on this production, including an amazing interview with the playwright.  You can listen to that interview here.

The New York Times had this to say about the play in their review: "These voiceless moments paradoxically give a resonant voice to women who never got to tell their stories. “Behind the Sheet” may be a quiet play. But its echoes are thunderous."  You can read the entire NYT review here

As a childbirth educator and doula, I have shared the exaggerated Sims position when demonstrating a very useful way to help labor progress when a laboring person wants to rest or when they have an epidural on board.  Since being made aware of the controversy about Sims' past history, I now refer to this position as the "exaggerated side lying" position.  I am not comfortable in crediting Sims for this position when I am aware of his past.  I encourage other educators to use a descriptive that does not involve Sims when sharing with the families they work with.

Have you seen the play "Behind the Sheet"? Have you heard about the controversial practice of Dr. Sims, and how his recognition comes at the expense of vulnerable Black women who had no voice?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.



1 Comment
1 Like

Mixed Emotions

February 22, 2019 12:28 PM by Connie McLendon, MSN, RN, LCCE


Thank you for sharing this piece of history. As a woman of African descent, I felt tormented as I read this. The use of this term so regularly desensitizes the nature of its origin. Sim's position is used so often in the medical and nursing discipline(s). I am a masters prepared Registered Nurse and this valuable, impactful information was not shared during the 6 years of my education. While his contributions were significant, it does not mean we should neglect the malice. In the future, I will be able to share this history with fellow educators because it is vital for everyone to recognize the despotism and inequity that the African community experienced (and still experiences) in order to appropriately educate, advocate, and improve outcomes. 

---excellent blog!  

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