John Peter Mettauer (1787-1875) of Prince Edward County, Virginia graduated from Penn’s medical school in 1808. Following his medical education, Mettauer returned to the South, where he founded a hospital near his hometown. Known as The Prince Edward Medical Institute, Mettauer’s private medical school proved extremely successful. The hospital-school, which was in operation until 1861, became associated with Randolph-Macon College in 1847. Three years after he established his hospital, Dr. Mettauer performed the country’s first known successful vesico-vaginal fistula operations on a local white woman in 1837, five years before J. Marion Sims, the “Father of Gynecology” began his experiments. Mettauer then performed the same surgery on a 20-year-old enslaved woman, whose surgeries he wrote about in an 1847 article in the American Journal of the Medical Sciences. Mettauer performed a total of eight surgeries on the enslaved woman, with no success.
“The operation was repeated, but with no better success than the first. I continued, however, to repeat the operation twice a year, after the second trial, for eight times, and finally had to relinquish the case. . . . I believe this case . . . could have been cured in process of time, more especially, if sexual intercourse could have been prevented.”
Although Mettauer does not describe his relationship to the enslaved woman, she likely either belonged to him or was rented to him for surgical purposes; therefore, it is extremely unlikely that she consented, as a free woman might have done, to the eight operations which Mettauer performed on her. It should be noted that Mettauer owned enslaved people throughout his lifetime; according to the 1840 census, he owned 29 enslaved people, twelve of whom were women. Ultimately, Mettauer’s experiment on an enslaved woman, likely without her consent, allowed for significant medical progress, as his publications greatly advanced American gynecology.