James Marion Sims began conducting experiments on enslaved Black women in 1845 with the goal of creating a technique to repair an unhealed tear in the vagina as a result of a traumatic childbirth. Sims ultimately wanted to become a trailblazer in health care — no matter the costs.
There are 10 Black women central to Sim’s story, but only three of those enslaved women were named in his writings: Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy. They are the true Mothers of Gynecology.
Anarcha was the first of Sims’ patients. At just 17 years old and suffering from an unresolved wound after a long and difficult childbirth, Anarcha’s prognosis was bleak at best. During the mid 19th century, there was no treatment for her condition and gynecological medicine was practically non-existent. However, Sims had recently successfully treated a wealthy white woman, who was injured falling from her pony, and his success gave him the confidence to attempt surgery on Anarcha.
But the care and dignity Sims provided his wealthy white patients was never extended to Anarcha —or Lucy and Betsy. Anarcha survived thirty painful and unsuccessful surgeries between m 1846-1849, in which Sims refused to use anesthesia. He caused untold suffering by operating under the racist notion that black people, especially black women, did not feel pain.
Over time, Lucy, Betsy, and several other Black women who were enslaved were forced to undergo his experiments as well. Sims created a makeshift hospital and trained the women on how to care for one another and assist with the surgeries. Doctors from all over the country would visit the hospital and rumors quickly spread about the Sims questionable ethics. However, eventually he was successful, and his imperious experiments were forgotten.
None of these women consented to Sim’s excruciating treatments. To their white owners they were property, valued only for their reproduction. To Sims, they were merely props in his scientific experiments.
Sim’s reputation as the “father of modern gynecology” was memorialized in three statues — but how he achieved all of this has long been ignored. There are no statues named in honor of Anarcha; no hospital wings acknowledging Betsy and Lucy. Their voices are erased from medical and history books.
In January 2018, the J. Marion Sims statue was removed from Central Park in New York on April 17, 2018 and is set to be relocated to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where Sims is buried. Its current plaque will be replaced by one that educates the public on the origins of the monument and the non-consensual experiments Sims used. The names and histories of Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey will take their rightful place on the new plaque and honor them as the unsung Mothers of Gynecology.