Major med journal examines the role of race in US medicine and concludes little has changed in 200 years.
Nothing symbolises a fall from grace like having your statue toppled. Such was the case for Dr J. Marion Sims in April, 2018, when workers unceremoniously loaded his bronze lookalike, which had peered down on New Yorkers in Central Park since 1934, into the back of a 4×4 pick-up truck ready to be shunted off to the nineteenth century surgeon’s grave site in Brooklyn.
The extraordinary reason for Sims’ demotion is the focus of an article by Princeton University historian Keith Wailoo, one of a quartet of pieces published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that examines the uncomfortable nexus between race and medicine in America.
In the 1840s Sims undertook a set of pioneering surgical experiments on women with fistulas – connections between the bladder and vagina often caused by traumatic childbirth. His aim was to relieve the appalling symptoms, which included urine leaking from the vagina, infections, and, in some cases, pariah status.
All of which sounds like an impeccable public service on Sims’ part. The problem was that his subjects were Alabama slaves, surgery was carried out with no anaesthetic (ether was new to the medical kit and not widely available) and the women did not give consent.
Sims, instead, reached out to the slave owners:
“I made this proposition to the owners of the negroes: ‘If you will give me Anarcha and Betsey, I agree to perform no experiment or operation on either of them to endanger their lives, and will not charge a cent for keeping them, but you must pay their taxes and clothe them.’”
While Sims praised the women’s courage, Wailoo describes how the surgeries took place in an era when many physicians believed black people were less sensitive to pain than whites. Perhaps this was salve for Sims’ conscience, but it was merely one example of entrenched false beliefs about race and biology.
Read the full article in Cosmos magazine here