Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy were three enslaved women who lived and worked on different plantations near Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1840s. All three women developed a painful medical condition after childbirth that caused them to lose control of their bladders and bowels. Enslaved women with this condition were kept apart from other workers. There was no cure. Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy were told they would have to live with the pain and shame of their injuries for the rest of their lives.
The men who enslaved Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy were frustrated with their condition. They wanted to find a cure, not because they cared deeply about the enslaved women, but because the women could no longer do the hard labor that would earn money for their enslavers. In 1844, all three enslavers sought the advice of doctor J. Marion Sims.
Like many doctors in the 1800s, J. Marion Sims was very interested in medical advancement and experimentation. He practiced all kinds of medicine, from dentistry to pediatrics to general surgery. In 1835, he moved from South Carolina to Alabama after two of his patients died. Eventually, he settled in Montgomery County, where he came to the attention of the men who enslaved Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy.
Sims had recently discovered a new way to position surgical patients. He believed he might be able to cure Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy within six months. He made arrangements with their enslavers to lease the women for the duration of their treatment, so he had complete control over their bodies. It is unlikely that Anarcha, Betsy, or Lucy ever had the opportunity to consent to the experimentation they were about to endure.
Lucy was the first of the three women to undergo Sims’s experimental operation. The operating room was packed with doctors who wanted to watch the procedure. She was not asked whether she was comfortable with strange men watching her operation. Lucy was brought to the operating room naked and restrained on the table so her involuntary movements during surgery would not disrupt the procedure. Sims did not use anesthesia to numb her pain. This was partly because doctors feared patients could die from anesthesia and partly because it was commonly believed that Black women did not experience pain the same way white women did. Lucy’s surgery took about an hour, and she was conscious for every minute of it.
After the surgery, Lucy developed a terrible infection from a device Sims had placed in her bladder. She experienced days of extreme agony. Sims was able to cure her infection, but her injury did not heal. The operation was a failure.
It must be acknowledged that these advancements were made through the exploitation of enslaved women’s bodies.
Betsy was the next person to undergo Sims’s operation. Like Lucy, Betsy was naked on the operating table and not given any anesthesia. This time, Sims used a device he invented for her bladder, and Betsy did not experience the same post-surgical infection that Lucy suffered. But Betsy’s injury was not repaired and this operation was also considered a failure. Anarcha was operated on last, with the same results.
When the results of Anarcha’s surgery became widely known, the local medical community decided that Sims was a failure and stopped supporting his experiments. Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy were left in Sims’s control, because without a cure, they were considered useless to their enslavers. They worked for the Sims family in the periods between their procedures and recovery.
Sims decided to carry on with his experiments even though all of his white male assistants quit. He trained Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy to be his assistants during operations and taught them how to care for each other during their recoveries. Separated from their families and communities, with medical conditions that made them social outcasts, the women had no choice but to continue cooperating with Sims. In time, they became skilled medical practitioners in their own right.
Sims experimented on Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy for the next five years. He also brought in other enslaved women to experiment on. He had no shortage of patients because enslaved women did not receive proper care during pregnancy. Sims bought one patient because her case was unique, and her enslaver was not willing to risk his investment on an experimental surgery. Sims practiced his procedure on a total of 12 women, but only Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy were named in his published reports.
In the summer of 1849, Sims performed Anarcha’s 30th operation. He used all of the new tools and techniques he had developed over the last four years. This time, Anarcha’s injury finally healed and she made a full recovery. Shortly after perfecting his technique, Sims closed his hospital and moved north. Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy all returned to their enslavers after five years of absence and experimentation.
In 1852, Sims published an article that outlined his new procedure. To appeal to a wider audience, he never mentioned that the women he operated on were enslaved or that he had total control over their bodies. He also never mentioned that the enslaved women became skilled medical practitioners. In the illustrations that accompanied his article, he is shown operating on white women with the help of a white nurse. The patient is also covered, a token of respect that Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy never received.
Sims’s work and article revolutionized surgical treatments for women and earned him the nickname “the father of modern gynecology.” But it must be acknowledged that these advancements were made through the exploitation of enslaved women’s bodies. Some historians have argued that Sims’s patients became enthusiastic participants in his experiments, but it is important to remember that they had no choice. Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy, and all of the unnamed patients of J. Marion Sims deserve to be remembered as the mothers of modern gynecology, because without their labor and pain, Sims’s critical achievement would not have been possible.