Betsey, Anarcha & Lucy: How The Foundation Of Modern Gynecology Is Based On Bodies Of Black Women

February 22, 2016  |  


A colleague sent me an NPR story this afternoon that was tremendously fascinating while also being painful to hear. As she shared it with me, I wanted to share it with you in the hopes that we can all learn something new about our history, and the part Black women played in the advancement of medicine.

Their names were Betsey, Anarcha, and Lucy. They were the women whose bodies were used by physician J. Marion Sims for study and experiment. Trials and attempts that would eventually make him the “Father of modern gynecology.” But as Vanessa Northington Gamble pointed out in the Hidden Brain broadcast, “We can’t forget how that came to be.”

Dr. Sims opened a clinic in Montgomery, Ala. and to stay afloat monetarily, he started doing work on plantations, providing medical care to slaves. But during that time, he came across captive women who had what we now know as vesicovaginal fistula. Gamble called it “an opening between the vagina and also the bladder or the vagina and the rectum, which usually comes after traumatic childbirth.”

Sims decided to do tests on three particular slaves: Betsey, Anarcha, and Lucy. They were painful procedures, sutures done without anesthesia. And while Sims wrote in his findings that the women were eager to have the procedures done because the fistulas left them struggling to work and have babies, as slaves, they didn’t have the option to give consent for such things either way. And when Sims did more and more of these procedures, conducting them in front of groups of medical professionals, the women had no say in being naked and experimented on in front of others.

To make matters worse, the surgeries were not successful early on, tearing, and causing even more pain. Sims did them from 1846 to 1849. Gamble stated that after 30 procedures on Anarcha, “he was able to perfect his technique.”

And such advancements helped him succeed greatly in the medical field. He became president of the American Medical Association and a member of the New York Academy of Medicine. He became a renowned surgeon, and statues were eventually erected in his honor, including ones in South Carolina and Alabama. But knowing the truth behind such headways made in medicine, Gamble believes that the three women, whose voices and thoughts — aside from screams during procedures — were left out of Sims findings, deserve to have people know of their contributions. Muting them “mutes the story that the foundations of modern gynecology are based on the body and the pain of enslaved black women.”

She continued, “He did treat white women. But he treated white women with anesthesia. Sims left – in the 1850s, he left Alabama and moved to New York City for health reasons. And he started a women’s hospital in 1855 there. He gained a reputation as an excellent surgeon. And so that he did treat white women. But the technique had been perfected on the bodies of black women.”

Please, when you have a chance, check out the thought-provoking NPR story below. How do you think Betsey, Anarcha, and Lucy should have their contributions recognized? And what should happen to Sims’s statutes and legacy?

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  • DeAnna

    Its terrible what they went through. It just breaks my heart…the extreme pain they experienced. Please keep putting articles out like this. People need to be informed and never forget these terrible acts

  • Curtis Young

    Although there were benefits gained from such inhumane research, I do not agree with having a statue of this,& any other doctors who took part in such brutality. There should be mention of the benefits gained, however, I think the other side of the story, the brutality, no relief from the pain, racism, hatred & distain for black people which is Again, the important parts of this story, which in my mind, is much more of a legacy than the medical side.

  • High Five Ghost

    Ok. This was the most substantial article I’ve ever seen on any black blog platform.

    Keep doing this.

  • “He did treat white women. But he treated white women with anesthesia”

    He tortured these black women period, 30 procedures and no anesthesia?

  • God’s child to the end

    Ms. Henrietta Lacks…..mother of cell growth. The HeLa cell. Great book and another story of an unsung black woman.

    • JustSaying

      Was thinking the exact same thing as I read this story. Though I’m glad her story was told it was a white woman who wrote the book. Not saying it would happen if the author were black but I doubt much if any of the proceeds went to the family that continues, generations later, to struggle in poverty as the pharmaceuticals continue to profit for decades to come.

  • Lex

    See, I shouldn’t read things like this because it makes me very hateful 🙂

  • Outlaw

    This is horrendous.

  • Guest

    How do you think Betsey, Anarcha, and Lucy should have their contributions recognized?–People won’t.

    And what should happen to Sims’s statutes and legacy?–Nothing. Build our own.

    • Curtis Young

      I think all the women who were brutalized in a manner that would not be tolerated if it was done to animals because of the outcry from society, should be the ones honored by having a statue in Central Park erected & erected at other notable locations & their story told as the main focus of finding treatment for millions of women, which results in their continued survival today.

      • Guest

        I agree, but trust, no one will do that for these women. So the best way to honor these women iMO, is to learn about them, their story and never forget them.

  • Fair and Balanced

    We are the foundation of many things but credit is rarely given to us. This is truly sad and even if credit is finally given to these brave women it will probably be down played as many in our society will never accept that Black women have been the foundation for many great things in this life and will continue to be the foundation for many great things in the future. Through pain, deceit, jealousy and hatred we will thrive regardless of those trying to keep us down which seems to span across all racial lines including our own.

    • Curtis Young

      I agree totally. The survival strength in African American Women is a huge reason for the African Americans in general to continue to withstand all the historical brutality & is the glue that strengthens & has allowed us to endure & grow. I honor & am grateful to all my sisters, as we all should be.

  • Secret87

    Wow so sad. I read the whole thing…just speechless.

    • Curtis Young

      You will find other details of their story & many, many other similar stories in a book titled,” MEDICAL APARTHEID”! Authored by a woman who I can’t recall her name at this moment, but is totally interesting. It may be titled,” AMERICAN APARTHEID” instead. I hope those interested will have no trouble locating it. It tells other stories that plays a Huge role in why African Americans tend to distrust the medical community, such as” The Tuskegee Experiments”.

      • Ricialove

        I just bought the book online from Amazon. The author’s name is Harriet A. Washington. I just started reading it. I’m just on the introduction and it already feels like I’m reading the equivalent of a horror film. But I’ll keep going because I want to know truth.