By: Dr. Jomo Mutegi
The Tale. This is the tale of two physicians whose lives in some respects are eerily similar. Both were born in Lancaster County, South Carolina in the early 1800s. Both attended Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, PA. Both practiced gynecology, and both are remembered for their work with enslaved African women. This is largely where the similarities end. The remainder of the tale shows two physicians in stark contrast.
The Contrast. The first physician is renowned as a surgical genius and is regarded as the father of modern gynecology. He served as president of the American Medical Association, the International Medical Congress and the American Gynecological Society. He is honored by having his name placed on hospitals, dormitories, and endowed chairs. A monument is erected in his honor on the State House grounds in Columbia, SC. The monument reads, “He founded the science of gynecology was honored in all lands and died with the benediction of mankind. The first surgeon of the ages in ministry to women, treating alike empress and slave.”
By contrast, the second physician is considered by many to be more of a butcher than a surgeon. He never completed his studies at Jefferson Medical College. In his incompetence, he killed his first patient. According to his own journal, “When I arrived I found a child about eighteen months old, very much emaciated, who had what we would call the summer complaint, or chronic diarrhea. I examined the child minutely from head to foot. I looked at its gums, and as I always carried a lancet with me and had surgical propensities, as soon as I saw some swelling of the gums I at once took out my lancet and cut the gums down to the teeth. This was good so far as it went. But, when it came time to making up a prescription, I had no more ideas of what ailed the child, or what to do for it, than if I had never studied medicine.” He killed his second patient (another infant) in a similar manner. After the death of his second patient he fled South Carolina, and moved to Alabama where he began to abuse African women and babies in the name of “medical practice.” He was known to use a shoemaker’s awl to pry the bones of African infant skulls into “proper alignment.” He was known to conduct surgery on the G*******a of African women without using anesthesia.
The Shocking Truth. If you are not familiar with this story, then it may come as a shock that these physicians are in fact the same person: J. Marion Sims. By any objective account J. Marion Sims was a butcher. He performed the most horrific, acts of barbarism on African people. He built a makeshift 16-bed “hospital” to house the slaves that he used as experimental subjects. He operated on one enslaved African woman, named Anarcha, over 30 times. Although Sims never used anesthesia prior to cutting on these women, he often gave them opium following the procedures. After being drugged on opium, they moved very little, which aided their recovery. Sims often made a public spectacle of cutting on these women and did so as demonstrations for other physicians. The other physicians would frequently be called upon to hold the women down as they writhed in pain. On one occasion the physicians observing left the procedure as the cries from the woman being cut upon were so dreadful.
The Makeover. So, if Sims treatment of Anarcha and other enslaved Africans is so barbaric, why is he so highly honored? Enter Robert Thom an illustrator born in 1915 in Grand Rapids, MI. Mr. Thom was commissioned by Parke-Davis Pharmaceuticals to create a series of paintings depicting “Great Moments in Medicine” and “Great Moments in Pharmaceuticals.” He created these works between 1948 and 1964. One of those paintings was J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon. It depicted a very stately Sims, a very demure African patient, and a set of willing assistants. Absent were the torture instruments that Sims admits to creating. Absent was any indication that the facilities were makeshift. The painting gives no indication that the waiting victim was apprehensive, that the other physicians were reluctant or that Sims was incompetent. Thom through his painting provides a patently false misrepresentation of history. But Thom’s misrepresentation is not confined to this one portrait. Thom prepared 85 portraits for Parke-Davis. Among his other misrepresentations is Hippocrates as the father of medicine (with no reference to the African Imhotep that preceded him). In another he presents Joseph Lister as the founder of antisepsis (with no mention of the African medical texts that describe the use of antisepsis over 2,000 years before Lister). Whether we look at Thom’s depiction of Galen, Lavoisier, Jenner, or The Temples and Cult of Asclepius, we will see artistic misrepresentations of history that are rife with inaccuracy.
I am compelled to share here one final cautionary note. Thom did not act alone in making J. Marion the Butcher into a highly respected figure. Parke-Davis Pharmaceuticals conceptualized and funded his artwork. The members of the American Medical Association, the International Medical Congress and the American Gynecological Society elected him president to their respective organizations. The legislature of the State of South Carolina (and ultimately its citizens) support the monument erected in his honor. Every member of every organization who in any way honors Sims is complicit in the makeover.
The Fix. There is a Kenyan proverb which states that, “Until lions start writing down their own stories, the hunters will always be heroes.” Friends, you are lions! Write our story. Draw our story. Paint our story. Sculpt our story. Do so without reservation, without qualification, and without hesitation. Give our people the tools that we need to tell our story!
Jomo W. Mutegi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the Indiana University School of Education in Indianapolis. He is also director of Sankoré Institute, a company that produces science and mathematics related activities and curricula for African American families. To learn more about Sankoré Institute visit: www.SankoreInstitute.org