J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon, from "The History of Medicine"

Accession Number

J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon, from "The History of Medicine"

Robert Thom

Object Creation Date
circa 1952

Medium & Support
oil on canvas

4 ft. 8 13/16 in. x 46 in. (144.15 x 116.84 cm)

Credit Line
From the collection of Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan

Label copy
The illustration J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon is just one medical “moment” in the thematic collection Great Moments in Medicine, produced between 1948 and 1964. Established commercial artist Robert Thom produced the Normal Rockwell-like illustrations, whereas George A. Bender, Parke-Davis pharmacist, composed the accompanying text. Bender’s description for J. Marion Sims: Gynecological Surgeon centers less on the work’s true subject—the patient, an Alabama slave known only by her first name, Lucy—and more on the heroic and mythical biography of James Marion Sims, the so-called “father of gynecology.” A portion of Bender’s troubling description (below) served as the illustration’s official caption since its accession to the collection of the University of Michigan Health System. 

"Little did James Marion Sims, M.D., (1813-1883) dream, that summer day in 1845, as he prepared to examine the slave girl, Lucy, that he was launching on an international career as a gynecologic surgeon; or that he was to raise gynecology from virtually an unknown to respected medical specialty. Nor did he realize that his crude back-yard hospital in Montgomery, Alabama, would be the forerunner of the nation's first Woman's Hospital, which Sims helped to establish in New York in 1855. Dr. Sims, who became a leader in gynecology in Europe as well as in the United States, served as president of The American Medical Association, 1875-1876; and was honored by many nations."

By way of blinded valorization, Bender’s text sterilizes Sim’s years-long experimentation on the bodies of “Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy and about nine other unidentified enslaved women and girls” from 1844 to 1849 (Medical Bondage, 1). Eclipsed by Bender’s mythical-heroic account of Sims was the agonizing pain suffered by the patients experimented on before the wide use of anesthetics. At the same time, the enslaved labor responsible for the very construction of Sim’s “crude back-yard hospital” is rendered invisible. As Bender drew heavily upon Sim’s memoir to craft his captions, he, much like Sims, also failed to acknowledge the fact that the enslaved female patients were expected to continue their servitude even as patients. These women not only cooked, cleaned, and cared for the Sims family, but effectively kept the Alabama hospital running, serving as Sim’s surgical nurses throughout the five-year period of their “treatment” (Medical Bondage, 2). 

Like Bender’s caption, Thom’s illustration also lionizes Sims, who stands with his arms folded at the head of the hospital scene. The illustration reproduces a racist, medical gaze, as it prompts the observer to join the ranks of other visiting surgeons who ogle Lucy as a medical object of curiosity. Through proper contextualization and careful visual study, we might challenge this supposed “great moment in medicine” and consider the contradictions of “scientific achievement” and the entanglements of violence, slavery, and medicine.

In reconsidering the captions for these images, we ask:  how can we use this knowledge to make new and informed assessments about Thom’s visual panoramas and Bender’s accompanying texts? How can we negotiate the allure of the artwork’s narrative in Great Moments in Medicine while also acknowledging its charged nature?

Primary Object Classification

Collection Area
Modern and Contemporary

If you are interested in using an image for a publication, please visit http://umma.umich.edu/request-image for more information and to fill out the online Image Rights and Reproductions Request Form. Keywords
medicine (discipline)

7 Related Resources

Questionable Objects
(Part of: Resources Made by Isabel Engel)
Medical Ethics
(Part of: History of Medicine - American Association of Historians of Medicine (AAHM))
Questioning health care ethics and bias
(Part of 2 Learning Collections)
Exploring Bias - Robert Thom's History of Medicine
(Part of 2 Learning Collections)

& Author Notes

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