NPR logo Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology

Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology

Illustration of Dr. J. Marion Sims with Anarcha by Robert Thom. Anarcha was subjected to 30 experimental surgeries. Pearson Museum, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine hide caption

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Pearson Museum, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine

Illustration of Dr. J. Marion Sims with Anarcha by Robert Thom. Anarcha was subjected to 30 experimental surgeries.

Pearson Museum, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine

This week, we're returning to our archives to grapple with the troubling history of medical experimentation on African Americans and how that history connects to the unequal medical care African Americans still receive today.

Black patients continue to receive less pain medication for broken bones and cancer. Black children receive less pain medication that white children for appendicitis. One reason for this is that many people inaccurately believe that blacks literally have thicker skin than whites and experience less pain.

The failure to recognize the pain of black patients can be tracked far back in the history of American medicine. Dr. James Marion Sims, a 19th-century physician, has been dubbed the father of modern gynecology. He's honored by three statues across the United States, one of which describes him as treating both empresses and slave women.

This week, we consider what — and whom — this inscription leaves out. Invisible in his shadow are the enslaved women on whom he experimented. Today, they are unknown and unnamed except for three: Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey.

We speak with Dr. Vanessa Gamble, a physician and historian, to investigate Dr. Sims' complicated legacy. He perfected a surgery that continues to help women today, but he practiced this technique through experimental surgeries on unanesthetized enslaved women.

We also speak with poet Bettina Judd. She helps us connect the experiences of Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey to the ways black patients are treated today.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, and Renee Klahr. Our intern is Chloe Connelly, and our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.