Dead Ringers and the Horrific True Story of the “Father of Modern Gynecology”

Episode five references J. Marion Sims, the so called "father of modern gynecology" who was also a monster.

Dead Ringers episode 5
Photo: Prime Video

This article contains spoilers for episode five of Dead Ringers. It also talks about racism and abuse and torture of Black women’s bodies which some may find upsetting.

Prime Video’s adaptation of David Croneberg’s iconic body horror Dead Ringers is a great example of how sometimes turning original IP into a long form show can work wonderfully. The film is a perfect nugget, a study of the destructive relationship of twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle, loosely based on the lives of Stewart and Cyril Marcus. The TV show, from showrunner Alice Birch, keeps the bones of the story but expands it out to talk about big issues related to science, childbirth and women’s bodies.

The standout episode is five, directed by Jennifer’s Body’s Karyn Kusama. It sees the twins, played by Rachel Weisz, visit the home of a wealthy family with a long history of twins to help deliver quadruplets. It’s a surreal, nightmarish trip which ends in disaster. While they are there, patriarch Marion, played with sleazy glee by Michael McKean, talks of starting out in the field of women’s health when it was somewhat uncharted territory, and how he didn’t have as many patients to “practice on” as Elliot and Beverly do. Beverly refutes that this isn’t what they do, but Marion launches into a speech about the history of gynecology and how a doctor in the 1840s and 50s practicing on one particular patient over a period of five years developed a way to fix her fistula (a tear between the uterus and the bladder). 

The doctor he’s talking about is J. Marion Sims, sometimes dubbed “the father of modern gynecology”, and he was a real person, as was Anarcha, the 17-year-old enslaved girl Marion talks of as if she was a consenting collaborator to Sims, and Beverly’s later vision emphasizes that she was very much not.

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Sims was a surgeon in the 1800s who specialized in repairing vesicovaginal fistulas. He opened the first women’s hospital in New York and developed various tools used in gynecology including the Sims speculum. It’s clear he did have a big impact on gynecology which prior to him was barely studied. 

But Sims was also a monster. 

After studying at Jefferson medical college, Sims set up his early practices in Alabama (where the twins have decided to open their new clinic in the show), where he was a ‘plantation physician’. Rich white enslavers would bring enslaved people to be treated by Sims, where he first treated Black women. In Montgomery, Alabama Sims built up a large practice including a hospital specifically to treat enslaved women. During this time he developed a special interest in the treatment of fistulas which are often a complication of childbirth. His main subjects were 12 enslaved women, but he only names three of them in his autobiography. These women stayed in his backyard hospital and he essentially had temporary ownership of them to experiment with his procedures. 

The girl mentioned in the show was 17-year-old Anarcha. As described, she had a severely deformed pelvis because of rickets brought on by malnutrition and a lack of vitamin D, had lost her baby and was operated on by Sims over 30 times across the space of 5 years, each time without anesthetic. As Beverly’s vision of Anarcha emphasizes, the only things we know about her are things recorded by Sims.

Anarcha wasn’t the first patient he operated on – that was 18-year-old Lucy who had given birth and wasn’t able to control her bladder after. Sims describes how she was screaming in agony, that the procedure took hours, during which she was naked on her knees and examined in front of a room full of doctors. She then got blood poisoning and almost died because of Sims’ use of a sponge to drain away urine. 

Even though anesthetic was available when Sims was working he didn’t use it because he apparently believed that Black people didn’t feel pain (though we’re not sure how that fits with his descriptions of the women screaming in agony. Odds on he just didn’t give a shit).

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McKean’s Marion is the modern embodiment of Sims. When Beverly calls Sims’ practices barbaric, saying “that’s history”, Marion replies, “we are never very far from our history.” 

When Rebecca mocks Marion’s name, asking his mother if she’s given him a girl’s name to create a weirdo from birth, in fact he’s presumably named for Sims. Sims first name was actually James but he preferred to go by his middle name. If you want to go further down the rabbit hole on this, that middle name was presumably in honor of Brigadier General Francis Marion who Sims’ paternal grandfather served under. Rebecca’s comment also resonates with the original film – these days Beverly is a girl’s name. 

Marion is Sims, but what about Elliot? Does she actually care about the women and babies? A later scene where she’s getting drunk with Silas indicates that she’s not that much better. And when she messes up the delivery accidentally cutting into the patient’s bladder there’s an echo of all the women Sims operated on who had bladder problems. 

Susan’s (Emily Meade) reaction that no one gives a shit about a bladder says it all.

Dead Ringers is available to stream on Prime Video.