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 3: “…all sort of beautiful and brilliant operations.”
Sims eventually outgrew Mount Meigs and turned his eyes towards other parts of Alabama. Theresa Sims’s brother lived in Lowndes county and the lack of health services and other infrastructure enticed him to move his practice there because “people would be obliged to employ me, whether they wished to or not.” (202)
However, upon visiting Montgomery to secure some rations for his travel to Lowndes county, Sims ran into Dr. Goff; a man described by Sims as a jovial alcoholic who spent too much time playing cards to be taken seriously as a physician. Goff related horror stories of the endemic malaria and other maladies that continuously struck Lowndes county. His tales ended with a plea for Sims to remain in Montgomery, but relocate from Mount Meigs to the city itself. Sims, moved by either the sincerity of the pleas or the horrors of Lowndes, did just that.
The Sims family moved into a house in Montgomery “on my favorite 13th day of the month of December (1840).”*
He needed to bring in money quickly and to that end he built a base of clientele by “[beginning] at the very bottom.” Sims became the go-to physician for two of Montgomery’s least serviced demographic groups; free blacks and the local Jewish community.**
Although free blacks served as his first customers Sims spent far more time discussing central Alabama’s Jews. It’s worth noting that Abraham Mordecai, a Jewish man from Philadelphia and Revolutionary War veteran, established the trading post that eventually blossomed into Montgomery, so the city has always contained a small Jewish population.***
Sims described them as “very clannish,” and all it apparently took to secure the “large and agreeable” Jewish practice in Montgomery was a few satisfactory visits from some well-respected members of the community. (200-207)
Once Sims became established with both the free blacks and the local Jews, he began performing all sorts of experimental surgeries. He treated patients in accordance with his disgust of former practices and fascination with new emerging medical ideas. No longer distraught by the limitations of medicine he “gave away [his] dog and sold [his] gun,” so as to avoid diversions. Within five or so years he earned a reputation as a skillful surgeon and people traveled from neighboring counties, occasionally arriving on the tops of bales of cotton, with ailments for the doctor to examine.
One such case cemented his interest in surgery. Margaret C., a young woman from North Carolina that moved with her family to Lowndes county, came to him with a very specific request.
She suffered from a harelip and wore a veil to hide her features.
Inexperience with the human mouth caused Sims to seek out a local dentist, Dr. Bellangee, and together the two men devised a way to fix Margaret C’s harelip. Through the removal of several teeth, layers of flesh, and other bones they inserted a new set of incisors manufactured by Bellangee. Over the course of a month, and several individual surgeries, they crafted a reasonable approximation of a human smile.
Now fully confident in his role as a groundbreaking surgeon, Sims soon faced the most challenging operations of his career.
*Sims appeared to be the original special snowflake and commented multiple times in his autobiography that he considered Friday the 13th to be a day of great luck and good fortune.
**he definitely did not call them free blacks, instead opting for a word that 1) reminds us of his time, place, and social standing and 2) shall not be reprinted here.
***Mordecai also thought that the Creek Nation were probably a lost Jewish tribe, so the first time he met its members he tried speaking to them in Hebrew. Although he eventually married a Creek woman, he managed to upset a local mico (Creek leader) in 1802 and had one of his ears lopped off as punishment. Dude was awesome and I’ll probably do an update on him sometime in the future.
Sims, J. Marion. The Story of My Life. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1884.
Sims, J. Marion. “Double Congenital Hare-lip – absence of the Superior Incisors, and their portion of Alveolar Process.” The American Journal of Dental Science Vol. V, no. 1 (1844): 51-56.