J. Marion Sims is a controversial figure in both the history of Alabama and early modern medicine. His experiments on enslaved women in Alabama and poor women in New York occurred without their ability to consent, dispute treatment options, or seek a different doctor.
In writing about him I have also committed a deep mistake in relying too heavily on his accounting of his life without consulting additional monographs on the topic or making mention of his intense ambition and desire for fame and fortune. Below are some links for further reading on the central issues of his medical ethics.
Part 1: “It, however, has its redeeming qualities.”
In the early days of April 1833, a young man walked up to his father in Lancaster, South Carolina. He grieved at the deaths of his first two patients and felt defeated by the refusal of a marriage proposal to his sweetheart Theresa.
Rumors circulated that, since the genocidal expulsion of the Cherokee nation, the malarial southeastern frontiers offered a ready bounty to anyone hardy enough to try and stake a claim.
“Father,” began the young man. The father looked up and listened as his eldest son talk about opportunity and work and possibly giving him a small loan so that he might travel to a place called Alabama. The father nodded along and when the young man finished ranting he said, “My son, are you crazy?” (179-181)
Sims received his education at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and returned to South Carolina in the high hopes of practicing there. However, few people knew him as ‘Dr. Sims’ as most of Lancaster continued to refer to him as Marion. Taken in combination with his failure to save his first few patients, Sims felt that a sudden departure might prove useful.
It took two more years before he’d depart for Alabama, but by the early part of November 1835, Sims found himself in Mount Meigs, Montgomery county, Alabama.* He almost immediately regretted his decision.
On November 3, he wrote to Theresa, the young lady that scorned his advances. He declared Mount Meigs “a fine stand for a physician,” and planned to travel throughout the Black Belt seeking patients. Although the deep south provided plenty of diseases to treat and explore, he found the people therein “dissipated” and brutal.
“At this very moment,” he wrote Theresa, “there are about a dozen or twenty men, of the most profane cast, drunk and fighting, in the street below my window, with a negro playing a banjo (I believe it is so called) in their midst.”
Although he greeted the peculiar forms of frontier entertainment with disgust, the brawling and “frolicking” soon endeared themselves to Sims. For barely two weeks later he wrote her again, he confirmed his original suspicions about the place and its people – a land of chronically sick and drunken hooligans with a taste for the banjo – but determined that Alabama, “has its redeeming qualities.” (371)
So began the career of J. Marion Sims.
*fun fact, all that remains in Mount Meigs today is a juvenile correction center.
Sims, J. Marion. The Story of My Life. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1884.