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Were These Enslaved Women Grand Medical Experiments or Guinea Pigs?

Culture Watch
tags: slavery, African American history, plays, womens history, theatre, medical history



Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Doctor James Marion Sims was a giant in American medical history. He founded the first Women’s Hospital in America in New York City in 1855 at Madison Avenue and E. 29thStreet, became one of the most well-known surgeons in the country, the father of Gynecology and, last but certainly not least, the President of the prestigious American Medical Association.

How did he become so prominent? He did it by discovering how to cure “fistulas” in slave women, and white women afterwards. A “fistula” is a tear between the uterus and bladder, a hole, through which urine and feces flow into the vaginal, causing odors, bleeding, blood poisoning and infections. They occur in difficult childbirths in which the head of the baby punctures the wall between bladder and uterus.

He went to Mt. Meigs, Alabama, where from 1844 to 1849 he set up a small hospital and conducted a series of operations on fistulas in 17 slave women after they gave birth, some to still born babies. He conducted from six to 30 operations on each. The women were forced to kneel, naked, on their hands and knees for an hour-long operation with no anesthesia. The operations were debilitating. The slave women wound up with dozens of scars, could barely walk and had their lives ruined by his surgeries. Through their surgeries, though, over several years, he found a way to cure fistulas and ever since then millions of women have avoided them in birth, a small miracle.

But was it fair – the medical and psychological lives of all those slave women in exchange for the safety of all those women ever since? Isn’t that what medical research and experimentation is all about? Or was it sheer butchery in order to make himself famous with little concern for the health and safety of the slave women? Were they medical heroes or abused guinea pigs?

Behind the Sheetsis a tragic, and yet beautiful play, about fistulas, Sims and his slave women. It just opened at the Ensemble Studio Theater, 545 W. 52d Street, in New York. The play, written by Charly Evon Simpson, starts off slowly and plods along for a good twenty minutes, but it absolutely explodes when you see the mangled women trying to walk across a room. It just breaks your heart. Why did he do this? Why did they let him? Do the medical Gods demand so high a price, paid in flesh and blood?

Simpson’s sledgehammer play rattles you as you sit there and watch this doctor and his cold, callous assistant, rip the women’s insides out in search of a cure. Ten operations per woman. Fifteen. Twenty and more. The pain and suffering, and the endless screaming, is chilling.

Behind the Sheetsis a great success on a number of levels, not just medical, and a four star historical hit.

I know a lot about the history of slavery, but I never heard this gut-wrenching story before. It startled me.

It is not just a play about a bloody doctor and his work, right or wrong. It is a play about a  white doctor who has sex with black women, a drama about women whose families have been sold off and moved far away, women who are not only trapped in slavery but trapped in Dr. Sims operating room. They lie there, no anesthesia, held down by their fellow women patients, screaming and yelling because of the pain. When it is all over, they go back again for another frightening operation, Then again. And then again.

In the play, the doctor’s wife beseeches him to stop his work as she sees the human carnage he creates, but he refuses. In the play, the storyline is that the doctor had affairs with two women slaves, and his wife knew about them. There is a slave man who is in love with one of the patients. There is a slave girl with a great sense of humor and other slaves with no sense of humor and sad, sad faces.

At the end of the play, the cast comes out on stage to correct the history of the play. They explain that the story is mostly true, but that the doctor did not have relations with any of the women. They add, too, that, missed in the play, the badly battered patients had to go right back to their jobs on the plantation the day after their surgery. The theater’s program has a well written, lengthy article on the doctor and his work. Riveting stuff. I wish all plays about history has essays such as this.

Colette Robert has done a fine job of directing the play even though it stumbles for awhile at the start Her true skill is to evoke the sheer panic of the operating room. You sit there, squirming, realizing that not only are these women going to spend the rest of their lives in slavery, but live them barely able to walk and perhaps do it without a man in their lives. “I am broken,” one woman says to a prospective lover.

Robert gets superb performances from Stephen Anthony, Nia Calloway, Naomi Lorrain, Christina Pitter, Shawn Randall, Joel Ripka, Megan Tusing, Amber Reauchean Williams and Jehan O. Young.

Over the years, Americans have erected three different statues to honor Dr Sims and none to honor his patients. I think the country got that backwards.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Ensemble Studio Theater in conjunction with the Alfred P Sloan Foundation. Scenic Design: Lawrence E. Moten III, Costumes: Sarah Woodham, Lighting: Adam Honora, Sound: Fan Zhang, The play is directed by Colette Robert. It runs through February 10.


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