James Burt's 'Love Surgery' Was Supported to Boost Pleasure, but Some Patients Say It Brought Pain
Coney Mitchell fell under the spell of Dr. James C. Burt when she moved to Dayton, in 1967, five months pregnant with her third child. Burt, now 67, an avuncular, soft-spoken gynecologist, listened to Mitchell’s concerns and promised her pain-free childbirth. But, alleges Mitchell, “after he delivered my baby, I did not wake up for 2½ days, and he kept me hospitalized for a week. I asked him, “What have you done to me?’ ” Burt said, “Oh, I just patched you up,” Mitchell recalls. “He told me by fixing me like he did, it would be just like being a virgin again.”
Far from “fixing” her, claims Mitchell, 43, Burt ruined her health. Following the delivery and “repair,” she developed chronic bladder, urinary tract and vaginal infections. Twelve years later, in 1979, Burt performed a hysterectomy on her. In 1985, still trusting her doctor, Mitchell submitted to yet another operation at Burt’s hands, intended to correct her bladder problems. Since then she has been unable to have intercourse with her husband, Hence. “I had all the faith in the world in Dr. Burt,” she sobs. “He never told me he was going to do Move surgery’ on me. I don’t know why he did that, unless he hates women.”
Mitchell is only one of at least 40 women who say they are victims of what Burt called the surgery of love—experimental operations, performed sometimes without informed consent, which he claimed would revolutionize relations between the sexes. Over 20 years, the ambitious doctor reportedly performed surgery on as many as 5,000 women, realigning the vagina and removing the skin from around the clitoris, leaving it exposed. Burt boasted in a self-published 1975 book that the resulting improvements on nature would transform a woman from “a scared, reluctant little house mouse” to “a horny little house mouse.”
Far from turning them into orgasmic athletes, say his alleged victims, Burt’s surgery left them sexual cripples, suffering from a host of disabling problems. Last November, under pressure from the Ohio State Medical Board, Burt agreed to stop performing surgery. Early in December the board labeled Burt’s medical conduct “grossly unprofessional or dishonest” and charged him with 41 violations of ethics or standards. So far, seven women, including Coney Mitchell, have filed malpractice suits totaling $21 million against Burt, who voluntarily surrendered his medical license in January. Even so, Burt adamantly maintains his innocence, blaming his “unjustified crucifixion” on “an avalanche of yellow journalism.
“My medical practice has been conducted with great concern for the welfare of women,” he insists. “There are a lot of women with problems involving vaginal intercourse that are either not being adequately addressed or not being addressed at all.” Arguing that many women suffer an unnecessary loss of sexual response because of stretching of the vagina during childbirth, Burt advocates reconstructive surgery to tighten the vagina and circumcision to make the clitoris more sensitive. In his book, Surgery of Love, written with his fourth wife, Joan, Burt disclosed that hundreds of his patients were not told “that anything special had been done at the time of their delivery” and that they later reported increased sexual response. (This January, Burt claimed that in the years since his 1975 book, he has obtained informed consent.) Burt numbers his wife, who is 25 years his junior, among his successful patients. “Joan has climaxed in elevators from the Southampton Princess in Bermuda to the Kuilima in Hawaii,” he wrote, “more than many women do in their entire lives.”
Published at the height of the sexual revolution, Burt’s book was a sensation, leading to his appearance on Donahue and an article about him in Playgirl. The media attention boosted Burt’s practice, and he soon became the gynecologist in Dayton, says one former patient. “He was very high priced, and you had the best when you went to Dr. Burt,” she says. “He had a big name.”
Women were also attracted to Burt’s offer of painless childbirth, which he achieved through heavy anesthesia. “He guaranteed there was no pain and there was not,” says a former patient who had three children delivered by Burt. “If you had one little cramp, you went to the hospital and woke up the next day or perhaps two days later with your baby.”
Apprehensive patients were reassured by Burt’s superb bedside manner. “I looked at him and said, ‘Here is a man who is real calm,’ ” recalls Linda Cook, 35. “He portrays a peaceful inner self and you feel that is your refuge.” Cook claims Burt told her he could relieve her pelvic pains by “suspending” her uterus. After the operation, Cook suffered even more and had to wear a bladder bag for several weeks. She became addicted to the prescription painkiller Percodan, and lost both her job and her boyfriend. “The first time we made love, I screamed hysterically with pain and went over in a fetal position,” she says. “He kept saying, ‘What did I do, what did I do?’ ” Now, says Cook, she sees Burt “as if he were a spider with a fly. From the first time I walked into his office, he was scheming to get me into the operating room so he could perform this surgery of his.”
Cook isn’t the only patient who believes Burt used her as a guinea pig. Judy Mack, 44, now a clerk at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, suffered bladder infections and pain during intercourse as a result of Burt’s tampering with her insides, she says. “I did not go to Dr. Burt for love surgery,” she insists. “I did not request it. I had no problems at all sexually. If I had requested it, I would have been able to accept the consequences. Right now I feel I’ve been raped.”
Burt’s love surgery was apparently good for his pocketbook, if not always for his patients. Adorned with gold chains, he cut a flamboyant figure in the Dayton medical community. Before they divorced in 1973, Burt and his third wife, Linda, were “noted for their high lifestyle and lavish pool parties—sometimes sans swimsuits,” according to the Dayton Daily News. “Burt is a free spirit. He is totally uninhibited,” says one of his colleagues. “He was not a golfer or an athlete—it was all indoor games.”
The son of a factory superintendent, Burt was born and raised in Dayton. He graduated from the University of Rochester School of Medicine in 1945, then served an internship at Hermann Hospital in Houston, followed by residencies at hospitals affiliated with the University of Chicago and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. After serving as a captain in the Air Force medical corps, he began his practice in Dayton in 1951. Now that the recklessness of his procedures has finally come to light, the question is, why did it take so long? Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of the Public Citizen Health Research Group in Washington, D.C., maintains that the case represents a failure at every level of the medical system—by local obstetricians and gynecologists, by local medical groups and by the staff of the hospital where Burt did his surgery. “Any one of these groups could have easily turned off this guy 15 or 20 years ago,” says Wolfe. “Burt is a butcher.”
Faced with at least seven malpractice suits, Burt has declared bankruptcy and, by surrendering his license, has avoided a hearing before the state board of medicine. Testimony there might have provided valuable evidence against him, and some former patients fear Burt will escape justice. One of those patients, Anna Mitchell, 44, of Miamisburg, Ohio, says she was forced to settle her 1975 suit against Burt for $5,000 because she was unable to find a doctor who would testify against him. Says another alleged victim: “Burt always seems to have the last word. I feel he is getting away with this unscathed.” Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the women who may have been scarred by his surgery.
—Montgomery Brower, Giovanna Breu in Ohio