There is a male equivalent to the vaginal examination. It involves probing the anus to check for prostate abnormalities, and it is justly regarded with fear and trembling by most of the male population. I don’t know the history of proctology or of proctological exams, but I do know the history of gynecology. And I know, as many do not, that those familiar instruments of both feminine discomfort and feminine salvation are the result of medical experimentation–without consent–on enslaved women in the South.
The story is told–eloquently, harrowingly–by Terri Kapsalis in Public Privates. It begins with three enslaved African-American women–Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy–forced on an Alabama plantation to have too many children too young. (Anarcha, for example, was only 17).
Youth, inadequate nutrition, and virtually nonexistent health care, then and now, are a recipe for lengthy, difficult labor during childbirth that not uncommonly results in vaginal tears called “fistulas”–a condition common during the 19th century that is still epidemic in parts of the world where there are too many malnourished child brides and too few doctors.
Enter J. Marion Sims, the “father of the gynecology,” also known as the “architect of the vagina.” Sims, born in South Carolina and trained at the institution now called the Medical University of South Carolina, attended Anarcha during childbirth and was called back to cure the fistula apparently caused by his inept use of the forceps.
Now let’s be clear. Women afflicted by fistula suffer uncontrolled incontinence, frequently mixed with blood, occasionally with feces. Then, as now, fistula sufferers are outcasts within their communities. They are considered “unclean” by certain contemporary religious standards. And during the period of enslavement, they were useless to a master class which prized the sexual utility and breeding capacities of women of color above all attributes.
I consider the labor of a breeding woman as no object, and that a child raised every 2. years is of more worth than the best laboring man…wrote no less ardent a “democrat” than Thomas Jefferson, our third president, in 1819.
So Sims–in a series of 28 operations conducted without anesthesia (and yes, it was available) between 1845 and 1849–in fact performed … a service as he invented the speculum, the stirrups, and eventually “cured” the women’s fistulas with his discovery of the efficacy of silver over silk sutures.
Would that he had stopped there.
Read the rest here