Barker-Benfield, G. J. The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes Toward Women and
Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Harper 1977.
Having read Sims' autobiography as well as various interpretations of Sims' life by
Liberationists, it is now possible to make a judgment about Barker-Benfield's assessment of
Sims. Liberationists have 1) condemned Sims as typical of physicians' attitudes toward women
and illustrative of the dominance of males over females; 2) hailed Barker-Benfield for
discovering this example of female oppression. I think both of their interpretations are in error.
Barker-Benfield does not single out Sims for his horrible treatment of Black female slaves, and
Liberationists ought to see Sims in the light of much more than his crassness toward women.
J. Marion Sims was a leading physician of his day. Indeed, he became president of the AMA in
his later years. In his autobiography, he is most proud of his association with aristocrats, his
services to royalty, and his hobnobbing with the rich. His social successes mattered most to him.
His success in establishing Woman's Hospital in New York City was a great triumph; not
because it was a facility to cure the poor but because the women who helped build this hospital
were the Best of the City. His was the fashionable hospital. But his fame in medicine derived
from some surgical procedures he developed. He found a way to use silver sutures to repair
damage to a woman's internal organs. His techniques brought him a good reputation in
professional medicine. Unfortunately, the subjects on whom he developed his techniques
suffered in the process, some of them undergoing dozens and dozens of procedures. His initial
experiments were carried on using Black female slaves, whom he kept at his own expense in a
shed in his yard.
Female liberationists have found Sims' abuse of Black female slaves to be abhorrent. Typical of
males! A perfect example of how horrible men are to women! Yet, Barker-Benfield does not take
that stand. And Sims certainly does not consider his treatment of the three "negras" as
reprehensible. In his autobiography he goes into great detail about their ordeals and it is not
something of which he is ashamed. The harsh treatment of patients was typical not of male vs.
female, or even white vs. black but, rather, physicians vs. patients. To interpret Sims in any other
way is to miss Barker-Benfield's point. Sims was a typical physician of his day and his treatment
of poor patients (regardless of sex) was terrible. Indeed, the treatment of poor people today in
medical facilities remains terrible, and females fighting for equality are addressing the wrong
issue here. We, all of us, males and females, should protest medical care!
Barker-Benfield also finds Sims' pandering to the rich and wellborn noteworthy. Physicians
account their successes by who their patients are. Poor patients, cured or not, are not important. It
is Sims' class consciousness of which we should be aware. Sims was a social climber who used
his medical skills to further his career and, if in the course of that career he happened to hurt a
few slaves, so be it. That is what is noteworthy about J. Marion Sims.
Liberationists have selectively attended to Barker-Benfield, picking and choosing in his work
those tidbits of information which fit their preconceptions of history in terms of today's social
problems. Barker-Benfield is much larger than that, as was J. Marion Sims.