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A re-evaluation of the legacy of James Marion Sims

A re-evaluation of the legacy of James Marion Sims

History is always skewed by our perceptions of modern morals. What was once considered acceptable in the pursuit of science is no longer permissible. However, our perceptions themselves are influenced by the education to which we are privy. Take, for example, two doctors - James Marion Sims, and Josef Mengele.

One is still hailed as the ‘Father of Modern Gynaecology’ for his invention of the Sims' speculum, and his achievement in repairing vesicovaginal fistulae (tears between the bladder and vagina), while the other is an “Angel of Death'' for medical experiments carried out in the Auschwitz concentration camp during WWII. Both gained fame for their experiments on female bodies, specifically the bodies of people who were viewed as ‘lesser’. Mengele serves as an example here simply because his name is relatively well known. However, he was not the only perpetrator of medical crimes during WWII; his crimes primarily focused on children. Instead, our true comparison is to Carl Clauberg, a gynaecologist in charge of block 10 - the medical block - in Auschwitz. Why, when Sims’ and Clauberg’s practices were so similar, do we not view them the same way? We must reevaluate the legacy of James Marion Sims and remove him from the pedestal on which uncritical history has placed him.

This image illustrates the actual nature of a vesicovaginal fistula. The tear between the vaginal canal and bladder is clearly visible.

The settings were oddly similar: forced labour camps. One milieu is US-American, still seen as an idyllic setting for a picnic; the other a place of remembrance. In both contexts, workers were means to an end. In the Southern US, that end was cash crop profits. In Europe it was production for the war effort, along the route to the extermination of ‘unclean people’ 1,2. Underscoring this fact are Red Cross documents digitised on The British Online Archives about the inhuman treatment of internees at Ravensbrück. The prisoners at this concentration camp were mostly political detainees, and were utlised as workers for factories. A report refers to a “slave market” of sorts, where factory delegates visited Ravensbrück specifically to choose new workers 3. Both camps housed people viewed by those who controlled their fates as less than human, as slaves. It should be made explicitly clear, at this point, that this remark on diction is not meant to in any way compare the overarching systems of chattel slavery and the Holocaust;  it should instead merely emphasise the mentality of those who perpetuated the human rights abuses within concentration camps. 

Auschwitz lives in the public consciousness as a spectre of death, while some plantations in the US still serve as wedding venues. Both places were sites of extreme horrors suffered by those who were seen as livestock, or lab rats. In turn, by selective historical attention, we implicitly view the medical experiments on Jewish women with abject horror, while we relegate to the vast realm of necessary evils for the greater good those experiments conducted on enslaved women.One reason potentially lies within the intention of the physician. Clauberg sought to prevent further pregnancies, while Sims wanted to enable (particularly enslaved) women to produce more babies. The result however, was the same - traumatised, agonised women who are lost to history. While enslaved blacks were discussed as stock, and seen as lesser, their continued fecundity  was of interest to plantation owners. Nazis viewed Jewish people as ‘subhuman’ and as a threat to the German Volk. In 1935, a law was enacted called the “Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, which purported the ‘racial inferiority’ of Jews” and was used as the logic for their use as research subjects 4. Clauberg’s work sought to render Jewish women infertile through X-ray exposure and injection with various harmful chemicals. The dispassionate tones in which these doctors discussed their cases is eerily similar. Sims, for all his praise and the good he eventually caused, had no desire to even look upon Lucy, an eighteen year old enslaved woman with a vesicovaginal fistula. He had already seen two other cases, and had written them, and their owners, off as incurable 5. Clauberg also cared nothing for his research subjects, choosing not to view them as people or watch as their humanity was stripped from them in preparation for his research 6. Perhaps most crucially, neither doctor provided any escape from operative pain; no anaesthesia (though T.G. Morton proved ether’s efficacy one year after Lucy’s first surgery, and therefore before many others) was provided to any woman under the “care” of these men.

The deposition of Karel Sperber, which has been digitised by The British Online Archives, provides a first hand account of the sterilisation experiments on Jewish Women. Sperber was a Jewish Czechoslovak doctor who was captured by Nazis, and was forced to work in Auschwitz 7. He describes the dehumanising treatment of the women-turned research subjects in horrifying detail; their clothing ripped from their bodies, their hair forcibly shorn, and the verbal abuse that accompanied all of the physical. He explains that they could all have been his mother or his sister, and that this, rather than the state of their undress, was what distressed him. Though, for the comfort of those “who do not believe that even a German can sink so low”, Sperber continues to explain that the women were then given some old Russian uniforms and small scarves for their newly shaven heads 8. The doctor in charge of the research facility, Dr. Clauberg, had no such reservations according to Sperber, and he was not present for their “preparation” to be used as his subjects. To him, the Nazi law of racial inferiority and subhuman status of the Jewish people was true. A comparison can be drawn here to slave owners and traders; Black people were inferior, so their feelings, even pain, did not matter to those who claimed to own them.They were thought to truly be lesser, incapable of such complex reactions 9.

One of the truest horrors perpetuated by the publication of their work, is that neither Clauberg nor Sims felt that they had, in any way, been in the wrong. Their statements about their work make this clear, while utterly eradicating any humanity or respect that the women they experimented upon deserved. In fact, when Clauberg was remanded to custody, he was asked by reporters if he wanted to apologise to any of the women he had abused in Auschwitz: “No, he did not: they should really be eternally grateful to him because he himself had saved them from the burning” 10. This view that the pain inflicted was a gift, as it had saved them from certain death, while still completely dehumanising them and their suffering, was most certainly shared by Sims. He cared so little for Lucy, that when touting his miraculous discovery of the use of a vectis (a single bladed forcep, in this case a copper spoon) to view the fistula, he used the wrong name for her 11! Whereas four pages before his “discovery” he refers to Lucy using a bed in his hospital, during his examination, she suddenly becomes Betsey, a previous patient, and another enslaved subject.  

This is an example of a vectis, held by The Science Museum Group

Both doctors also felt that they completed their experiments with their subjects’ consent. Clauberg detailed, during interrogation, that he had created a life saving institute at Auschwitz, that all the women were rescued from the gas chambers, and that all research was conducted with their agreement 12. Sims offered a bargain to the enslavers of his experimental subjects, “If you will give me Anarcha and Betsey for experiment, I agree to perform no operation or experiment 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. I will keep them at my own expense” 13. Somehow, neither seemed to understand that all of these women lacked any agency whatsoever, and according to modern medical ethics, this would in no way have constituted informed consent. Clauberg obtained his Jewish research subjects under the threat of death, so they truly had no other option. They were prisoners under his control. Sims did not even bother to ask the enslaved women whether they wanted to be experimented upon, and instead offered their “owners” a bargain, and truly did not even ask for their informed consent. He had no idea what exactly his experiments would entail, so there can be no doubt that informed consent was impossible.

Clauberg’s Auschwitz research was never widely published, but it has been reconstructed through the use of his notes and testimonies from doctors like Sperber (who were forced to help him), and others who may or may not have been involved. Clauberg denied that he was involved in a mass sterilisation scheme, and insisted that he only sought to help women who no longer wanted to get pregnant, even when confronted with his own report to Himmler 14. This “help” certainly involved the use of x-rays with the aid of a contrast material - involving formalin - to render Jewish women infertile 15,16. For those not in the habit of dealing with tissue preservation, formalin (and formaldehyde) is a carcinogenic substance that ‘fixes’ tissue, preventing it from decomposing 17. That is of course, when the tissue is dead. In the living, it is highly corrosive, and all of Clauberg’s subjects suffered a great deal of pain, nausea, swelling, discharge, and bleeding 18. For those who survived the initial experiments, prospects did not look up. According to Ruyter, there were several unpleasant paths that lay before them. They were either considered ‘useless’ and therefore ready for the gas chambers, or they were transferred over to other research units. There they were either subjected to surgical removal of the uterus, or to more x-ray experiments. If they were considered still able to work, they were transferred to either labour camps or to brothels, if they were considered attractive enough 19. The disregard for these women’s bodily autonomy as well as their personhood correlates with the language that Sims uses to describe the enslaved women he would continually cut into. Both of these men viewed their subjects as subhuman, and undeserving of even basic dignity.

To highlight the lack of dignity afforded to them, the conditions of the medical experiments must be remarked upon. Sperber describes SS men cheering and jeering as the Jewish prisoners were stripped of their worldly possessions, on show for anyone who chose to watch 20. Sims himself states that “about a dozen doctors” were in the audience for his first surgical intervention on Lucy 21. And in fact, when the Women’s Hospital in New York limited the number of audience members to fifteen for a surgery in 1874, he stepped down from the board 22. The women in both situations were viewed as spectacles, not as people.

While the movement of the Jewish people was not as geographically extreme as that suffered by African peoples in the transatlantic slave trade, the obstetrical trauma they suffered is entirely too similar to what black women suffered under Sims’ knife. Both groups of women were wrenched from their homes, starved, had their bodies viewed as playthings, and were put on display for multitudes of medical professionals. The fact that there are numerous comparisons to be made between the behaviours of Carl Clauberg and James Marion Sims cannot be overstated. Modern historians utterly villify nazi experiments whilst simultaneously praising those of Sims. It is time to relegate Sims to the level of butchers like Clauberg and Mengele. He should no longer be hailed as the “father” of anything, but remembered as a sadist who made contributions to the future of medicine on the backs of enslaved women.



1) Kaupen-Haas H. (1988). Experimental obstetrics and National Socialism: the conceptual basis of reproductive technology today. Reproductive and genetic engineering, 1(2), 127–132.
2) “Records on Ravensbrück, 1945-1948 Img. 8.” Microform Digital, n.d.
3) Ibid.
4) Roelcke, Volker. “Nazi Medicine and Research on Human Beings.” The Lancet 364 (December 2004): 6–7.
5) Sims, James Marion. The Story of My Life. Page 229. D. Appleton, 1888.
6) Sperber, Karel. “Records on Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1945-1947.” Microform Digital, n.d.
7) Ibid.
8) Ibid.
9) Hollingshead, Nicole, Samantha Meints, Meagan Miller, Michael Robinson, and Adam Hirsch. “A Comparison of Race-Related Pain Stereotypes Held by White and Black Individuals.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 46, no. 12 (2016): 718–23.
10) Ruyter, Knut. “Carl Claubergs metode for sterilisering uten operasjon:” Nordisk tidsskrift for helseforskning 16, no. 2 (December 23, 2020).
11) Sims, James Marion. The Story of My Life. pg. 234: D. Appleton, 1888.
12) Ruyter
13) Sims, 236
14) Ruyter
15) Sperber
16) Ruyter
17) Thavarajah, Rooban, Vidya Kazhiyur Mudimbaimannar, Joshua Elizabeth, Umadevi Krishnamohan Rao, and Kannan Ranganathan. “Chemical and Physical Basics of Routine Formaldehyde Fixation.” Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology : JOMFP 16, no. 3 (2012): 400–405.
18) Ruyter
19) Ibid.
20) Sperber
21) Sims, 237
22) Royal College of Surgeons of England. The Woman’s Hospital in 1874 : A Reply to the Printed Circular of Drs. E.R. Peaslee, T.A. Emmet, and T. Gaillard Thomas, Addressed “to the Medical Profession,” “May 5th, 1877.” New York : Kent, printers, 1877.

Authored by Hanna Polasky

Hanna Polasky

Hanna Polasky got her undergraduate degree in anthropology from Bryn Mawr College, and her MSc in Paleopathology from Durham University. If it has to do with the history of fashion, medicine, or archaeology, she's definitely interested.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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