Four women in hospital gowns splashed with blood-red paint stand in front of a statue in New York. The statue is of Dr J. Marion Sims, known as “the father of modern gynaecology”.
The women are from Black Youth Project 100, and they want the statue taken down. With their red-splashed gowns, they are representing the female slaves that Sims experimented on – without anaesthetic. Most of those women’s names have been lost to history, but three of them were called Lucy, Anarcha and Betsey.
Sims was a doctor in Montgomery, Alabama, when he began his experiments on slave women in 1845. At that time, there was no treatment for repairing vesico-vaginal fistulas. These fistulas are tears between the vagina and the bladder which leave women incontinent after a difficult birth. They were particularly common among slave women, because of poor nutrition and a lack of medical care.
Sims, who had developed a new way of examining vaginas by using a speculum, set up a hospital in his backyard to carry out experiments into repairing fistulas. Female slaves were brought to him by their masters, because their incontinence reduced their value. The masters gave permission for the surgery.
The first woman Sims performed surgery on was Lucy. He invited other doctors to watch as he operated on her, without using any anaesthetic.
“The surgery lasted for an hour and Lucy endured excruciating pain while positioned on her hands and knees,” wrote Durrenda Ojanuga in the Journal Of Medical Ethics. “She must have felt extreme humiliation as 12 doctors observed the operation.”
The surgery was a failure. Lucy nearly died, and it took her almost three months to recover.
Another woman Sims experimented on was Anarcha, who was just 17 years old. It’s believed she endured 30 surgeries until Sims finally found a technique that worked, using silver wire for the stitches.
Sims spent four years experimenting on slave women in his backyard hospital. He never used anaesthetic.
Defenders of Sims point out that ether anaesthesia wasn’t successfully used for surgery until 1846, a year after Sims first experimented on Lucy.