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?