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.
But there’s no doubt there was racism behind Sims’ choices.
“There was a belief at the time that black people did not feel pain in the same way,” doctor and medical historian Vanessa Northington Gamble explained on NPR. “They were not vulnerable to pain, especially black women.”
In the Journal Of Medical Ethics, LL Wall insists Sims couldn’t have performed the operations without the cooperation of the women involved. Wall says, that according to Sims’ autobiography, the women “clamoured” to be operated on, because they wanted their injuries to be cured.
But Gamble says Sims had an interest in saying that the women wanted the surgery.
“One of the interests is that it mutes the story of slavery in his work, that it mutes the story that the foundations of modern gynaecology are based on the body and the pain of enslaved black women.”
Sims later moved to New York, where he became a great success as a surgeon. He operated on white women using the techniques he had perfected on black slaves – but now, using anaesthetic.
Three statues have been erected to Sims. One is outside the New York Academy of Medicine. This is where Black Youth Project 100 held their protest last week.
The calls for the statue to be taken down continue. Just days ago, the statue was vandalised, with the word “racist” spray-painted on the back.
Gamble says she’s “conflicted” about whether statues of Sims should be taken down. She says she’d like to see something added to commemorate Lucy, Anarcha, Betsey and the other women.
“As a historian and as a teacher, I think that it’s important for people to know what happened to those women. And if we whisk away these images of Sims, people will forget.”
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