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THREE Anesthesia, Birthpain, and Civilization Far from being broken, the fantasy link between knowledge and pain is reinforced by a more complex means than the mere permeability of the imagination. . . . The figures of pain are not conjured away by means of a body of neutralized knowledge; they have been redistributed in the space in which bodies and eyes meet. —Michel Foucault, Birth of the Clinic The case of infamous nineteenth‑century surgeon J. Marion Sims, father of American gynecology and inventor of the speculum, exhibits a dolorological constellation that is of interest to this chapter. It introduces three bodies materialized through their proximity to pain: the compassionate white male scientist, the nervous white woman, the painless female slave. These figures dominate medical and social discourses around medicine, civilization, race, and gender in the first half of the nineteenth century and their bodies come to matter (or not matter) in the professionalization of medicine during that era. While my principal subject is the introduction of anesthesia in parturi‑ tion around 1848 and its various effects on racial and gendered meanings of pain, I draw on Sims to establish the basic constellation of bodies cha‑ racteristic for the underlying biopolitical shift. Sims’s recollection of the events leading to his discovery of the specu‑ lum in 1845 began with an accident. He was called to visit in Montgomery, Massachusetts, where a white woman, Mrs Merrill, had fallen from her horse onto her pelvis. In the doctor’s terms, she suffered from a “dislocated uterus.” As Sims recalled in his autobiography, the observation and treatment of female anatomy caused him extreme discomfort, which he only overcame by a sense of overwhelming sympathy for the poor woman: “If there was 51 52 AMERICAN DOLOROLOGIES anything I hated, it was investigating the organs of the female pelvis. But this poor woman was in such a condition that I was obliged to find out what was the matter with her. It was by a digital examination, and I had sense enough to discover that there was retroversion of the uterus” (1885, 231). With disgust, and barely enough concentration to unfold his medical expertise, Sims adventured into the field of gynecology out of sheer com‑ passion with the suffering woman. While he managed to almost magically relieve the patient of her pain, he remained unsatisfied with the results of the “digital examination,” because his fingers were not able to see: I turned my hand with the palm upward, and then downward, and pushing with all my might, when all at once, I could not feel the womb, or the walls of the vagina. I could touch nothing at all, and wondered what it all meant. It was as if I had put my two fingers into a hat, and worked them around, without touching the substance of it. While I was wondering what it all meant Mrs. Merrill said, “Why, doctor, I am relieved.” My mission was ended, but what had brought the relief I could not understand. (233) Sims framed the central problem of gynecology as one of darkness, which (recalling Edmund Burke) is a source of sheer terror and pain for the observer trapped in it: “[I]n utter darkness, it is impossible to know in what degree of safety we stand; we are ignorant of the objects that surround us” (Burke 1757, 176). But having once ventured into the dark, Sims was determined to bring light into the undiscovered territory and transport his magical cure of Mrs Merrill to scientific understanding. He remembered the female slaves anarcha and betsey,1 who had been send by their “kind hearted . . . masters” (227) to Sims’s small clinic for treatment of vaginal fistulas, which had rendered them “unfit for the duties required of a servant” (227). He rushed to experimental action immediately, as he recalled in his autobiography, seizing on the unfit slave body to conquer the darkness of female sexuality: Arriving [at the hospital] I said, “Betsey, I told you that I would send you home this afternoon, but before you go I want to make one more examination of your case.” She willingly consented. I got a table about three feet long, and put a coverlet upon it, and mounted her on the table, on her knees, with her head resting on the palms of her hands. I placed the two students one on each side of the pelvis, and they laid hold of the nates, and pulled them open. Before I could get the...


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