Honoring the Legacy of Black Lives: Anarcha, the Mother of Gynecology

“Knowing that whatsoever good thing any [wo]man doeth, the same shall [s]he receive of the Lord, whether [s]he be bond or free.” – Ephesians 6:8

All I can say is, I had no idea!  Let me explain what I mean by that.  I attended a women’s health fair at our local university at which the keynote speaker was Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D.  After listening to her lecture I purchased a copy of her book, Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.

Being the birth junkie that I am I immediately buried my nose in my signed copy.  I enjoyed the author’s comprehensive and witty approach to the topic.  Being a childbirth educator I soaked up the information, but I halted at chapter two, “Slave Women’s Contribution to Gynecology.”  I am not surprised that slave women were experimented on in the name of furthering gynecology but I admit that it had not yet crossed my mind.

What I did not know is that we owe much to our African sisters who took part in furthering the health of women of all races. So where does this story start?  It starts with J. Marion Sims.  The J. Marion Sims foundation is quoted as saying that he “was one of the most famous physicians of his time, renowned as a surgical genius and as one of the founders of operative gynecology.”  He boasts an impressive resume including servicing royalty and even President James A Garfield after he was shot in 1881. He also “served as president of the American Medical Association in 1876, as president of the International Medical Congress in 1877, and as president of the American Gynecological Society in 1880.”  There are monuments built in his honor along with a hospital named after him. There are a few important details left out of this description.  And that is that he owes his fame to ten African slaves, three of whom we have names for, Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy.  Some of the slaves actually died as a result of his surgical experiments.  Wendy Brinker has been quoted as saying,“The success of J. Marion Sims .  . . rested solely on the personal sacrifices of the enslaved African women he experimented on from 1845 to 1849.” [1]

Anarcha was the first slave woman brought to Sims by her owner because she suffered with a condition called vesicovaginal fistulas.  VVF is an abnormal fistulous tract, extending between the bladder and the vagina that allows the continuous involuntary discharge of urine into the vaginal vault.  This condition rendered a slave “useless” to her owner.  She was no longer able to work or give birth to more slaves.  She was often ostracized as a result of the foul smell.  VVF is not just a problem of the past. It is still found in many developing countries (usually caused by prolonged labor) and is often underreported. In industrialized nations VVF is frequently a result of doctor caused injury at the time of gynecological surgery in particular hysterectomy.

In the time of Dr. Sims, African slave women were inflicted with VVF for a few different reasons. Many slaves were malnourished and had rickets which caused their pelvis to be deformed which in turn caused prolonged labor necessitating the need for forceps or other extreme measures to extract the baby.  In addition, many African slave women were victims of violent rape or conceived babies at a very young age before their bodies were mature enough to fit a baby through the pelvis.

Many white women also suffered from this condition but Dr. Sims refused to work on them until he had perfected his surgery on African slave women.  It was commonly believed at his time that slaves had a high tolerance of pain and that white women did not.  When he finally did operate on white women, he offered them anesthesia which he never offered the slave women.  He did allow observers to watch these surgeries/experiments.  We will never know, but it is doubtful that these women were given the option of consent.

“These experiments set the stage for modern vaginal surgery. Sims devised instruments including the Sims’ speculum to gain proper exposure. A rectal examination position where a patient is on the left side with the right knee flexed against the abdomen and the left knee slightly flexed is also named after him as Sim’s position. He insisted on cleanliness. His technique using silver-wire sutures led to successful repair of a fistula, and this was reported in 1852.” [2] 

the Sims speculum

Sadly, many of the women who suffer today from this condition are modern sisters to Anarcha (in the African regions) and do not have access to the care needed to correct this condition.

Being a woman who has had a few stitches “down there,” I can’t help but feel intense gratitude for these women.  While I have never suffered from VVF, Dr. Sims and his patients are responsible for furthering the integrity of stitching materials.  I feel a quiet reverence for these women.  I don’t think they have been thanked or honored enough.  

As I read this scripture from Ephesians, I thought of the courage of Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy, and their slave sisters:

“Knowing that whatsoever good thing any [wo]man doeth, the same shall [s]he receive of the Lord, whether [s]he be bond or free.” – Ephesians 6:8

So to these women, I want to offer my heartfelt gratitude:

Thank you Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy and sisters. 

I have no idea what it was like to live your life or walk your path but I will never forget your contribution.

For more information on this topic you can visit the following websites:




This post has been edited with new links since it was first written and posted in 2011.

2 thoughts on “Honoring the Legacy of Black Lives: Anarcha, the Mother of Gynecology”

  1. Randi Hutter Epstein

    Hi Robyn:
    thanks so much for reading my book and sharing the chapter about Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy and so many others whose names are not remembered. If only these women were literature and we could have evidence of everything they were thinking. I saw a marvelous play by Charly Evon Simpson, Behind the Sheet, that fictionalizes a bit but brings their story to life.

    1. Randi, thank you for bringing this play to my attention. Maybe someday I may get to see it. Either way I am glad that their stories are being told. Thank you for being one of those story tellers too.

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