The fact that doctors have a long tradition of writing medical history to interpret and direct their profession is well established. But readers (particularly modern physician readers) can also understand physician-authored histories as offering commentary and analysis of the world beyond medicine. In this essay, we offer a reading (perhaps a modern one) of J. Marion Sims's 1877 article, ‘The Discovery of Anaesthesia’ which exemplifies the stance of looking both inward and outward from the medical field. We begin by discussing Sims, including the complicated legacy he left as a physician. Next, we review late 19th-century history with a focus on Reconstruction. Finally, we show how the modern reader can use Sims's article both to trace the first use of ether and nitrous oxide for surgical anaesthesia and to provide a window into the 19th-century medical profession and the post-Civil War period. Through this study, we hope to show how to read both medicine and the world around it in physician histories.