The ghost of the racist “father of modern gynecology” is still killing Black infants & child-bearers
By Naomi Alexis
The so-called “father of modern gynecology”, James Marion Sims, trafficked in enslaved Black women, likely impregnating them through rape, in scientific experimentations for the purpose of advancing his career in medicine. When experimenting on these enslaved women, he did so without anesthesia. He developed tools through trial and error and repeatedly performed painful procedures—torturing helpless women with no regard for their humanity.
The methods he developed would go on to be used—accompanied by anesthesia, of course—to treat maladies that similarly afflicted his white patients. His barbarism established techniques still in use today, and helped him to secure patents that would go on to enrich himself, his family and fan the flames of his high standing in the medical profession.
It’s no wonder that infant and maternal mortality rates for Black women are now 3-4 times higher than their white counterparts. Modern gynecology was birthed by a racist who tortured and mutilated enslaved Black women. Until we reckon with this legacy and the institutionalization of Black pain for profit while simultaneously ignoring and misdiagnosing the real cries of Black patients, the medical profession is nothing less than complicit in the deaths and suffering of Black women and their infants.
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According to the CDC, for every 1000 births in the US, 11.4 non-Hispanic Black infants do not survive. This can be compared to the death rate of 4.9 white non-Hispanic white infants. There is no question that socioeconomic status, access to healthcare and education are aspects of Black women and infants’ higher than average maternal and infant mortality rates. However, these are factors that do not have a significant bearing on the prenatal and postpartum health of poor, uneducated white women and children in America.
Poor child-bearers in general are not dying in childbirth at these alarming rates. Black women of all socio-economic status are dying at 3-4 times the rate of American white women, as Serena Williams and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter know all too well. These famous, well-compensated Black women with access to “the best” doctors and medical care were still the victims of the very real disregard medical professionals lend to the complaints of pain or disease that are common in postpartum. A direct thread can be drawn to the training and education of doctors in procedures, prognosis, and treatment that disregards the pain, input, and health of Black child-bearers, resulting in their and their baby’s preventable deaths.
Sims did attend one year of medical school and a three-month internship with an alcoholic physician. The weight that is lent to this monster, who often questioned the validity of his own medical knowledge, should only go to further discredit the use of his practices and the commonly held myths driven by racism that still take the lives of Black child-bearers and their children today.
Through reading Sims’ autobiography, one can easily understand that making money off of the treatment of enslaved women from their slave-owners was the niche he carved and profited from. In the 1985 Heckler Report the government first documented a call for the examination of health disparities in communities of color. More recently, National Institute of Health measured quantifiable differences in the way Doctors assess and treat the pain of Black patients in comparison to white patients, with the report stating, “beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites—beliefs dating back to slavery—are associated with the perception that black people feel less pain than do white people and with inadequate treatment recommendations for black patients’ pain.”
Sims trained surgeons across the United States and Europe throughout his career, spreading his techniques and practices of butchering unanesthetized enslaved women and infants, who had no agency or consent over their own bodies, perpetuating the idea that Black people felt no pain. The trans-Atlantic slave trade provided a ready supply of victims for “night doctors” who felt no compunction or conflict of Hippocratic oath about lives they considered subhuman, on whom they experimented regularly and repeatedly to advance their own medical reputations at the expense of their Black subjects. Sims himself kept 11 enslaved women in a crude structure behind his “hospital” for experimentation on at his whim.
The same kinds of disregard informed the ideas and the abuse of the “subjects” of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiement. These Black men, who should have been seen and treated as patients, warranted no informed consent or available antibiotic treatment by the medical establishment or their doctors who were the grandsons of Confederate soldiers themselves. Tuskegee was overseen by Dr. John R. Heller Jr., once the chief executive of Memorial Sloan Kettering. He died in the late 80s and not one blip of his obit mentions the unethical experimentation in which he participated. These practices of inherited, learned racial bias translate through the teachings and guidance of a wide and influential web of medical professionals. They have been forgiven for crimes they will never be held responsible for.
One of the surgeons Sims trained was his son-in-law John Allan Wyeth. Wyeth practiced surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City until he opened Polyclinic Graduate Medical School and hospital in 1881, where both William Worall Mayo and Charles Horace Mayo of the Mayo Clinic were trained under his tutelage. Wyeth would continue to train surgeons and doctors at Polyclinic until it merged with Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Wyeth went on to serve as presidents of both the American Medical Association and the New York Academy of Medicine. He also went on to author the memoir of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest (thought to be the “father of the ku klux klan”). In an article published in North American Review in 1915, Wyeth supported the American occupation of Mexico, calling the independent nation a “disgrace to civilization.” (Incidentally, Wyeth’s son, Marion Sims Wyeth, went on to be the architect responsible for the design of Mar-a-Lago, a mansion whose current owner has similar ideas about our neighbors in Mexico. A property that receives our hard earned tax dollars for the leisurely pursuit of one of our political leaders, built on the foundation of racism.)
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When you think about the countless Black child-bearers and children currently dying during and after childbirth today due to racial bias and negligence, remember the countless, nameless and anguished who were tortured and died in the name of medical advancement. Remember the establishment of vaunted medical institutions that train what some consider to be the best doctors practicing gynecological medicine today. Remember the names on buildings and portraits lining the hallways students and faculty members traverse to maintain the tradition of transferring this medical knowledge from one class to the next.
The medical profession as a whole needs to come to grips with the long-held and practiced ideals that have informed, mentored and instructed them to butcher Black patients. But what hope can we have that they will actually listen?
I call on you to do as I did and seek out Black OBGYNs while refusing to be treated by white ones. When my water broke and the white resident on duty at the hospital told me to go back home because I had simply wet myself, I closed the curtain to my exam area at Brooklyn Hospital and very loudly told my husband to keep her away from me. I then reached out to my OB, the Black woman and attending physician who had told me to check in 30 minutes prior when I alerted her by mobile of my amniotic rupture. My daughter was born less than 8 hours later.
Until anti-racism training is used to dismantle practices in education and treatment that are causing the avoidable deaths of Black child-bearers and our babies, none of us should put our lives at stake by placing them in the hands of white doctors.
Relocating his statue was not nearly enough.
Naomi Alexis is a New York native, the mother of a 6 year old and will complete her Full Spectrum Doula Training with Ancient Song Doula Services in September of 2019. Her mother has been a practicing Labor and Delivery RN in NYC for the past 40 years.