Dr. J. Marion Sims was, in the 1840s, the most popular physician in Montgomery, Alabama. Enslaved Black people were two-thirds of the area’s population, and he was their primary doctor.
But one day, a slaveowner brought him a pregnant woman with a never-before-treated problem: “fistula,” a pelvic condition that complicates childbirth and usually leads to death.
Sims treated her - over DOZENS of experimental surgeries - without ANY anesthetic, despite their availability. Sims, like most doctors, believed that Black women didn’t feel as much pain as white women.
The surgery ended up being successful.
Inspired by the success, Sims found other enslaved women with similar conditions, and experimented on them - also without anesthetic. Most - but not all - of them survived.
Through these experiments, he developed the field of gynecology. Before then, it was considered distasteful to research, treat, or even LOOK at female genitalia.
Sims’ legacy is complex - through his experiments, an often-fatal condition was now treatable. Today’s gynecologists use updated versions of the tools - like specula and catheters - that he invented.
On the other side, the stereotype that Black women feel less pain than whites persists in medicine today, and Black women STILL die in childbirth at much higher rates than non-Black women - despite the fact that it was Black womens’ painful sacrifice that made gynecology possible!