Axelsen, Diana E. "Women As Victims of Medical Experimentation: J. Marion Sims' Surgery

 

Axelsen, Diana E. "Women As Victims of Medical Experimentation: J. Marion Sims' Surgery
on Slave Women, 1845-1850," Sage 2 (Fall, 1985), pp. 10-13.

This paper is written by a professor of philosophy rather than a historian or a philosopher of
medicine or science. She writes here as an enthusiast for the cause of women, acknowledges her
indebtedness to Graham Barker-Benfield and uses his The Horrors of the Half-Life as her
primary source. Her bibliography also includes Sims' autobiography but, as is made clear in the
footnotes and in the text, it is Barker-Benfield who is cited as the principal source. "Except for
(Barker-Benfield) ..., there seems to have been no published analysis of this important historical
instance of the abuse of women as experimental subjects until quite recently." (p. 11)

It is true that Sims did experiment on Black women slaves, and there is no question at all that he
cared little for any of his patients. Sims tells of rescuing these unfortunates from their intolerable
condition; he tells of achieving greatness by treating these otherwise untreatable women. Axelsen
wants Sims to be seen as cruel and unfair to women. But physicians have always been unkind to
the poor and the downtrodden. Experimenting with such subjects gives rise to the birth of the
clinic: experiment on the poor to develop techniques of treating those who can afford to pay.
That is not unusual even today.

Axelsen suggests that in his surgery Sims should have used anesthesia which was invented as
early as the 1840s. The trouble here is that Sims did not hear about anesthesia until after 1850,
when his work with the repair surgery had been completed.

Sims' work in New York and in Europe clearly points to his pandering to the aristocracy and the
rich. He sought social advancement and was a snob. That says something about Sims, but not the
sort of something that this author would make out.

The medical profession was, in the 1850s, certainly male dominated and unkind to patients in
general. These were widely held professional views of the inferiority of women. But these traits
should not be seen as unique to Sims.