Art Hx: Visual and Medical Legacies of British Colonialism

A page from a medical text shows a white doctor and nurse operating on a white female patient, who is visible from the waist down as she lays on an operating table with her rear to the doctor. Around this central image are nine smaller drawings of various relevant medical equipment and illustrations of how to surgically close the fistula with stitches.

Title: Dr. James Marion Sims and nurse repairing a vesico-vaginal fistula patient. From Henry Savage, The Surgery, Surgical Pathology, and Surgical Anatomy of the Female Pelvic Organs, in a Series of Coloured Plates Taken from Nature. With Commentaries, Notes, and Cases. Second Edition. London, John Churchill & Sons, 1870. Hand-coloured lithograph, Folio – leaf: 313 x 240 mm.

Artist/Maker: J.B. Léveillé

Date: 1870

Source: Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library

Copyright/Permissions: Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library, Karolinska Institutet

References: Owens, Deirdre Cooper. Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and The Origins of American Gynecology. Athens, GA: UGA Press, 2017.

Location(s): Montgomery, Alabama, USA; London, England

Commentary: U.S. physician James Marion Sims (1813-1883) experimented on enslaved Black women such as Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy, operating on them without anesthesia to develop various gynecological procedures (including a treatment for vesicovaginal fistula). Taken from a 19th century medical text, this image depicts Sim’s female patient as white, erasing Sims’s exploitation of Black women and the key role they were forced to play in the founding of modern gynecological medicine.


Art Hx