Black Women Were Used in the Worst Way Imaginable: Medical Innovation
Note: The shameful history of slavery must be spoken about as publicly and as often as possible, and the people who preserved it should be scolded and condemned throughout the present and future. The ones who lived through it, must be uplifted. Especially, Black women.
Even after the Civil War, white American scientists and doctors typically treated Black people as guinea pigs with the unfounded belief that we did not feel pain, to justify operating without anesthesia. Even today, a study showed that most white medical students and residents that were surveyed, endorsed false beliefs about biological differences between Blacks and whites. And those who did, also perceived Blacks as feeling less pain than whites, and were more likely to suggest inappropriate medical treatments for Black patients.
The stories of the Tuskegee experiment and Henrietta Lacks (I will go into more detail about at a later time) warranted a healthy mistrust of the medical profession from the Black community. Like their Black counterparts, many Native American and Latina women were coerced into sterilization. Today, studies show Black children and adults do not receive the same pain treatment as their white counterparts. Even when money is not an issue, there is unequal treatment of women of color in childbirth. Tennis legend, Serena Williams, told her story of how she went ignored because of these held stereotypes and biases. ICONIC superstar, Beyoncé, told her story of how she almost died as well. The failure to recognize the pain of Black patients can be traced far back in the history of American medicine. And for Black women, it was one man: Dr. James Marion Sims.
Sims, a 19th-century physician who wanted to make a name for himself, has been dubbed the “father of modern gynecology” but I will dub him one of the worst torturers of slaves, specifically Black women, in history. Starting in 1845, Sims conducted experiments on enslaved Black women. He created and perfected the technique to repair a condition called vaginal fistula, which repairs a woman’s vagina after traumatic childbirth. This condition was highly stigmatized and dangerous for all women. There was no treatment. So, on one hand, you could say Sims was doing what doctors are supposed to do by taking these women on as patients. But there’s another side to what Sims did. He wanted to be a trailblazing researcher, and these women, their bodies, became props in his journey of scientific discovery.
There are 10 slave women central to the story. Three are specifically named by Sims in his writing, the others ignored. These women were brought to him by their slaveowners and he eventually bought them for himself. The first woman was named Anarcha. Anarcha was a 17-year-old enslaved woman who had undergone a very traumatic delivery. Some sources say that she was in labor for three days. At first, he was not interested in treating women, but ultimately realized that it could make him known within the medical community for a type of medicine that had so much stigma, and not enough research. So, from 1845 to 1849, he did a series of experimental surgeries, without anesthesia, on these three women: Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy.
It was very painful, and Lucy, one of the three women, almost felt as if she were going to die, that she cried out in pain so much because of these surgeries. Betsey was held in a backroom of his research hospital where she was tested on. But at the same time, he writes that the women wanted the surgery because they did not want to have the condition anymore. The brutalities of slavery even birthed the belief at the time that Black people did not feel pain in the same way as whites. They were not vulnerable to pain, especially Black women because, he wrote, “they had suffered pain in other parts of their lives and their pain was not legible.” This racist belief is still seen and heard in modern medicine to this day.
As Sims’s reputation as a “researcher” grew, he began to invite other physicians to come watch as he performed the surgeries. This surgery was done where these Black women were fully naked in front of a crowd of white men, while going through an extremely horrific amount of pain and experimentation. Think of how much dignity that was taken away from these women? And for a very long time, the surgeries didn’t work. That’s why the surgeries went on from 1846 to 1849. Finally, after 30 surgeries on ONE woman, Anarcha, he was finally able to perfect his technique. After perfecting this technique, he then took his medical innovation and used it on white women, but with anesthesia this time. A horrible blow dealt that opened up more bias and stigma in the medical field still seen to this day.
The only thing known about the women are that Sims claimed, in his writings, “clamorously wanted to have the surgery.” Claiming they wanted to be ‘cured.’ Missing in his writings though, are the words and voices of the women themselves not being translated by Sims. Sims, of course, has a self-interested reason to say that the women wanted what he was doing to them. His popularity was rising. And one of the interests is that it mutes the story of slavery in his work, and the fact that the foundations of modern gynecology are based on the bodies and the pain of enslaved Black women. He tested multiple new “inventions” on these women, while torturing them, and finally came up with one modernized item still used to this day: the speculum. This duck-billed device is still used for basic gynecological visits.
The circumstances in which his medical discoveries, specifically for a game changing surgery like fistula repair was achieved, were the direct result of the commodification of Black women’s bodies through chattel slavery. Under any other circumstances, Sims may not have had such ‘willing’ subjects for his years of experiments, something even some of his defenders admit. Sims’ story reveals a coming together of gender, race and class systems which elevate Sims and vanquish the women into relative obscurity. Yet, even within his own time frame, there were those who questioned what he was doing and carefully distanced themselves from him, although that distancing wasn’t necessarily due to ethical concerns. It’s unfortunate to say that James Marion Sims did do an incredibly important thing and deserves a place in medical history. But his “place” is currently undergoing a necessary adjustment as we continue to examine the relationship between his professional reputation and the systems of oppression in which it created.
So, at the very least, while we shouldn’t forget him, we must also remember and elevate Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and all of the other women whose names he did not even care to record. We must honor the true “Mothers of modern gynecology” and call out the evils of the father of modern gynecology, because without these women’s sacrifices, we wouldn’t have the knowledge we have today.
If you’d like to hear about other medical stories like Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy’s, be sure to read Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington. Harriet does a great job of delving into the horrific nature of slavery and medical “innovations” that came from it, even detailing the birth of medical biases and stigmas we still deal with today in modern medicine.
UPDATE: It was recently announced that the ‘Mothers of gynecology’ will receive their own monument in Montgomery, Alabama for their sacrifices to medical innovation.