Who the heck was J. Marion Sims?


Encouraging people to die: Today, we make an admission. Our admission goes like this:

Ever since it appeared in last Thursday's Washington Post, we've been thinking about this column by Michele Norris. 

Why have we been thinking about that column? Admittedly, we've been thinking about it because it started like this, headline included:

NORRIS (12/10/20): Black people are justifiably wary of a vaccine. Their trust must be earned.

Trust is earned. We all know that. But if a national vaccine campaign is to succeed, we must quickly figure out how to earn the confidence and cooperation of African Americans who are justifiably wary of a coronavirus vaccine.

"Black people are justifiably wary of a vaccine?" Here in Our Town, are we sure we want to be publishing headlines like that?

We're not saying that anyone should be criticized for being "wary of a vaccine." But are we sure we want to feature the idea that those people we think of as black are justified in their "vaccine hesitancy?"

We ask for this reason:

Ever since the spring, observers have been noting the (substantially) higher death rate from Covid among the people we think of as black. With that in mind, are we sure we want to be publishing headlines in which we say that black vaccine reluctance is some version of "justified?"

People, we're just asking! But do we love our storylines so much that we're willing to let people die for them? Are we willing to let people die so we can keep telling our stories?

As you can see, Norris says, in her opening paragraph, that we should be encouraging African Americans to get vaccinated. Presumably, she feels that there's no medical reason why anyone should avoid these emerging vaccines.

That said, she spends enormous chunks of her column rattling off the horrors, past and allegedly present, which explain why black people are "justifiably" wary. Along came an editor, who propelled that into the headline.

Last Thursday, we cited an egregious howler emitted by Norris as she proceeds down this beloved, standardized path. Today, we'll show you something else we decided to fact-check.

As she proceeds, Norris rattles a standard list of horribles concerning past medical practices. In her formulation, these practices explain why black people are justifiably wary about accepting the vaccine today.

Norris goes on and on in this vein; she's telling one of the favorite stories currently told in Our Town. Needless to say, the Tuskegee experiment is cited. At one point, she also cites  this:

NORRIS (12/10/20): You must know names such as J. Marion Sims, who is known as the “father of gynecology” and lauded until 2018 with a statue in Central Park in New York. Sims performed reproductive experiments on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. One of those women, Anarcha Westcott, underwent 30 painful gynecological surgeries without any form of sedation. Sims later opened a hospital where he conducted his perfected technique on White women, who were of course anesthetized.

Really? To understand black vaccine hesitancy, we "must know names such as J. Marion Sims?"

Since we didn't know that particular name, we decided to look it up. We couldn't help noticing that Norris included a date for the statue removal, but not for the years in  which Sims engaged in the practices she describes (though the word "enslaved" does appear).

So who the heck was J. Marion Sims? The leading authority on the topic starts by telling us this:

James Marion Sims (January 25, 1813–November 13, 1883) was an American physician in the field of surgery, both known as the "father of modern gynaecology" and as a controversial figure for the ethical questions raised in developing his techniques...

The information proceeds from there. We couldn't help noting that Sims was born in 1813 (sic).

J. Marion Sims was born in 1813! Our question would be this:

Why should anything this man ever did affect anyone's attitude toward today's Covid vaccines? More particularly, how much do we love our horror stories that we're dragging ancient history like this into modern-day issues of life and death?

Here in our unimpressive town, we love our tribal stories. For the past several years, after decades of benign neglect, we all began pretending that it's still 1955 when it comes to matters of race.

(That benign neglect continues in all sorts of areas. When have you ever seen your favorite cable stars discuss the schools black kids attend?)

We've been pretending that it's still 1955. Are we now pretending that it's still 1813 too? More specifically, why should anyone concerned about black life and death be talking about J. Marion Sims (born in 1813) in this current life-and-death context?

Here in Our Town, we tend to be deeply self-impressed. Beyond that, we love to tell our favorites tales, just like everyone else.

We'll add one final point:

Norris' error about (present-day) white medical students was, especially in this life-and-death context,  an egregious, inexcusable howler. The problem began with the professor whose slippery work Norris cited, but there's no excuse for the endless bullshit which litters the streets of Our Town.

At some point, we'll force ourselves to walk you through the slippery work which led Norris to commit that pitiful howler. We're sorry to tell you that Our Town's professors (and journalists) very much tend to be like that.

For today, we'll close with this

The current leader of Their Town seems to be deeply deranged. But what's our excuse Over Here?

Meanwhile, black people are justifiably wary! Please think about Marion Sims!


  1. “do we love our storylines so much that we're willing to let people die for them?”

    It isn’t “our” storyline. It’s “theirs”, meaning African Americans, who aren’t just “people we think of as black” but people who think of themselves as black. But it’s also “ours” in the sense that it is part of American history, and is not some liberal interpretation of history.

    Maybe people shouldn’t let the past affect their present decision making; but they do. Somerby hadn’t heard of Sims, who was born a long time ago. He seems to have heard of the Tuskegee Study, which ended in 1972, hardly ancient history. This history leads to the present-day reluctance to get a vaccine and cannot be dismissed.

  2. Black people know when they are in pain and they talk to each other about their treatment by medical professionals. This is happening now, not in the 1800s. Better training in pain assessment started to happen in the early 2000s, but that has been a little derailed by concern over opioid abuse and physicians' greater suspicion of black people as medication seeking (misinterpreting expressive behavior).

    The mistreatment of human subjects continued way past the 1970s until federal research contracts started requiring review by human subjects institutional review boards. That is during the lifetimes of older black Americans.

    I repeat, this is why white people such as Somerby need to take ethnic studies classes in college, and why it is important that all people be included in the history taught in K-12 textbooks.

    Note that women are also undertreated for pain compared to male patients (even adjusting for body weight).

  3. Somerby seems to be arguing for situational ethics. Because those gynecological surgeries occurred on slave women, they aren't so bad, apparently, and no one should worry about them today. I presume he would similarly dismiss the abuses of Mengele because they took place during the Nazi regime in the mid-40s?

    Somerby may be unaware that the medical profession decided to throw out the results of all such "research" performed under the Nazis because of the mistreatment of human subjects, who were also not volunteers or even ill. Among the studies discarded were those showing the harmfulness of smoking. I wonder if Somerby knows that the so-called Stanford Prison Experiment was never published because of the unethical treatment of human subjects and the compromised results occurring because Zimbardo was the warden in his own experiment and thus able to steer the results toward his preferred conclusion. That was in the 1970s. There are many fairly outrageous abuses of military personnel and prisoners (such as those at Guantanamo) even more recently. It used to be commonplace to use prisoners as subjects, with their permission, but the promise of early release or privileges is now considered coercive and not permitted. Somerby should understand that African Americans are disproportionately part of the prison population.

    Somerby is an ignorant man and that contributes to his bigotry, but his knee-jerk tendency to react badly to anything a liberal says that he considers PC is worse than just being undereducated on racial matters. It is making him sound uglier than usual.

  4. "Who the heck was J. Marion Sims?"

    The tone of this question is needlessly insulting. It implies that not only does Somerby not know who J. Marion Sims was, but why should he? It disparages Sims as someone not important enough to be recognized by name.

    Granted, Somerby doesn't care about gynecology (or anything to do with women), but he is saying he doesn't care about black health either.

    To see the problem, substitute a different name into the sentence: "Who the heck was Babe Ruth?" A baseball fan would be rightfully outraged that anyone would ask such a thing.

    Somerby should welcome an opportunity to learn, not disparage others for thinking he ought to know some names he has never heard of.

  5. "Why should anything this man ever did affect anyone's attitude toward today's Covid vaccines?"

    Because, if white people could operate on black women, slaves or not, without anesthetic and without meaningful consent, what makes anyone think they wouldn't inject today's black people with an experimental vaccine just to see what happened, without informing them of potential side effects or worrying overly much about their outcomes.

    There has been too little reassurance that black lives matter for today's black people to trust authorities when they say, "just take the shot, nothing bad will happen...trust us."

    Somerby's occasional references to the way Rachel Maddow fails to discuss Baltimore school children, do not convince many of us that Somerby cares at all about black people, that he knows anything about their problems, or that he gives a damn.

    The people who care about Baltimore's black kids are the ones still teaching them, not those blaming Rachel for choosing a different career.

    I'll bet Somerby couldn't tell any of us thing-1 about Biden's education program.

  6. About a half hour ago, I provided a list of studies about ethnic and racial differences in pain treatment, all dated from the late 1990s and early 2000's. It posted but has apparently now been removed.

    It was intended to show that Michele Norris was not wrong despite whatever criticism Somerby might make of the article she linked to (not a scholarly journal article but something from the popular press).

    I don't know why my post disappeared. I think it is important for people to know that this is a real problem experienced by black people, today, not in the dim past, and that Norris is correct about it and about the way black people react when they are mistreated by medical professionals.

    If Somerby took it down, shame on him.

    1. OK, I put the list back up and now it is gone again.

    2. Sometimes when I click “publish”, the comment disappears. Often I have been able to fix it by removing the TDH cookie and trying again. Not sure why it happens. It seems random.

    3. It was posted twice, then disappeared. I think maybe his spam filter decided it was spam.

    4. That is definitely weird. That’s never happened with my comments. Is Somerby filtering out spam now?

    5. It appears yes, since there wasn't any yesterday. I posted it again. It appeared and now it is gone again. I mainly wanted Somerby to see it, since he is the one who was saying that Norris was incorrect about African Americans and pain treatment. This is an acknowledged medical problem, not something that the left has made up.

    6. If so, it probably isn’t Somerby manually deleting it. I might investigate how you automatically filter spam in blogger. Somerby’s rules may be too broad. I would have liked seeing what you posted.

  7. It seem that instead of encouraging more paranoia among Blacks, the Washington Post could have published something more positive, like this.


    Anthony Fauci has praised the work of Kizzmekia Corbett, an African American scientist who the leading US public health expert said was “at the forefront” of the development of a leading coronavirus vaccine.

    1. Norris’ opinion piece wasn’t the only thing the Post published, Gloucon. It’s a part of the story that Norris felt was important. She wasn’t writing it to gin up paranoia for heaven’s sake. Somerby is fond of taking a single report or op-Ed and acting as though that is THE reporting or THE liberal view. It isn’t. Don’t fall for it.

    2. As a matter of fact, the Post DID report on this:

      “Kizzmekia Corbett spent her life preparing for this moment. Can she create the vaccine to end a pandemic”

      Why do you and Somerby do this?

    3. @mh So why do you think Norris chose to ignore Corbett's heroic contribution toward trying to produce a vaccine along with those of many other African American medical professionals and instead felt that dredging up past racist incidents would be more beneficial?

  8. Some people have an investment in saying things have not changed.

    1. And some people have an investment in saying there’s no racism anymore while giving cover to racists.

  9. Somerby thinks they were mean to poor Melania about the Christmas decorations. Here is what Tucker Carlson is saying about Jill Biden's doctoral dissertation:

    "“They’re essentially pure nonsense, like pig Latin or dogs barking. The whole thing is just incredibly embarrassing. And not simply to poor, illiterate Jill Biden, but to the college that considered this crap scholarship. Embarrassing, in fact, to our entire system of higher education, to the nation itself. Jill Biden’s doctoral dissertation is our national shame. Are we overstating this? Well, you decide!”

    In contrast, Melania claimed a fake bachelor's degree in architecture from Slovenia and truly cannot write an English sentence. People were complaining about something she did, not attacking her simply because her husband got elected.

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