Episode 4. Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy: Remember Their Names

Human experimentation has had a long, dark history in the practice of medicine, with people of color being the subjects far too often. This week, we discuss the lives of Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy, three of the ten enslaved Black women subjected to the gynecological experiments of Dr. J. Marion Sims, an Antebellum physician. Learn about why he was experimenting on these women, what these women endured and what the outcomes of his experiments mean for us today. Also be sure to stick around for our Feminist Corner discussion, where we are joined by Dr. Diana Louis a professor of Women’s Studies and American Culture at the University of Michigan, as she discusses the concept of intersectionality with us and how we can use it as a tool to better understand our own lives as women and women in healthcare.

Feminist Corner

Intersectionality: the ways in which multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) overlap/intersect and affect individuals, usually in marginalized communities.

For example, the discrimination experienced by a Black woman cannot be fully explained by the discrimination experienced by a Black man nor a white woman because the space where those discriminations intersect is unique and presents its own injustices and inequalities.

The history of intersectionality as a term is rooted in the legal system and was coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw. Now it is used more widely to understand the ways that multiple facets of our individual identities and systems of oppression come together to affect our lives.

How does intersectionality help us better understand what Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy and the other enslaved women experienced in these four years as experimental subjects? How can it help us understand their lives as enslaved women? 

 Some historians argue that these women did give Sims their consent to be experimented on because they were in so much pain and desperate for relief. What do you think? And where do you think these historians hit or missed the mark on understanding consent with these women?

What are some questions we can ask ourselves or conversations we can have to remind ourselves to have an intersectional feminist perspective in our daily lives?

Listen to the episode, discuss these questions with friends and family, let us know what you think!

Show Notes:

We want to first acknowledge that we are not Black but are approaching this episode with the intention of educating each other and others while engaging in conversation about race and racism

Topic Overview: The guy called the “Father of Modern Gynecology” is actually a huge racist and for 4 years conducted experiments on Black enslaved women as he searched for a way to repair vesicovaginal fistulas

  • Who were Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy?
  • 1845: Montgomery, Alabama
  • Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy were all Black enslaved women owned by friends or acquaintances of J. Marion Sims, a doctor (not even a gynecologist) who visited plantations at the request of plantation owners with very sick slaves
    • All three had vesicovaginal fistulas due to traumatic childbirth experiences
  • Vesicovaginal Fistula (VVF) overview:
  • VVFs are basically tears between the vagina and bladder or vagina and rectum that result in leakage of bodily fluids and constant pain
    • Very common in 19th century childbirth, especially in cases of longer labor as the tears were a result of tissue damage
  • Outcomes of his experimentation:
  • From 1845-1849 he experimented on these and other women
    • Ultimately he was successful in creating a surgery to repair vesicovaginal fistulas
    • Invented the speculum, a medical tool used still today to peer into the cervix
  • To reach success he:
    • Essentially rented the enslaved women because he said that as long as the owners paid the tax and for their clothing, he would take ownership of them until their treatment was complete
    • Didn’t give them anesthesia and instead gave them morphine AFTER each procedure, and as a result led the women to become addicted to opiates
    • But when he started doing these surgeries on white women he gave them anesthesia
  • Controversy:
  • Some historians argue that Sims actually helped Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy and the other unnamed women he experimented on, because they argue that these women were in so much pain it was a relief
    • BUT to make this argument would mean that you must not be considering the circumstances that led these women to get fistulas in the first place
    • Having many children from an early age was the main economic value of an enslaved woman which led to higher likelihoods of fistulas
  • Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy’s Legacy
  • The statue of Sims in Central Park was taken down and moved to Brooklyn, where the plaque on it was also replaced with a different one that educates the public about Sims’ controversial life and highlights Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy who deserve that recognition


Andrei, A. (2013, April 12). James Marion Sims’s Treatment of Vesico-Vaginal Fistula | The Embryo Project Encyclopedia. Retrieved June 16, 2020, from https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/james-marion-simss-treatment-vesico-vaginal-fistula

Coaston, J. (2019, May 28). Intersectionality, explained: meet Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term. Retrieved June 16, 2020, from https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination

Crenshaw, Kimberle. Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8. Available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8

Holland, B. (2018, December 4). The ‘Father of Modern Gynecology’ Performed Shocking Experiments on Slaves. Retrieved June 16, 2020, from https://www.history.com/news/the-father-of-modern-gynecology-performed-shocking-experiments-on-slaves

Prather, C., Fuller, T. R., Jeffries, W. L., 4th, Marshall, K. J., Howell, A. V., Belyue-Umole, A., & King, W. (2018). Racism, African American Women, and Their Sexual and Reproductive Health: A Review of Historical and Contemporary Evidence and Implications for Health Equity. Health equity, 2(1), 249–259. https://doi.org/10.1089/heq.2017.0045

Stamatakos, M., Sargedi, C., Stasinou, T., & Kontzoglou, K. (2014). Vesicovaginal fistula: diagnosis and management. The Indian journal of surgery, 76(2), 131–136. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12262-012-0787-y

W.H.N. (2015, March 28). Discrimination – A Coat of Many Colors. Retrieved June 16, 2020, from https://womenshistorynetwork.org/discrimination-a-coat-of-many-colors/

Zhang, S. (2018, April 18). J. Marion Sims, the Gynecologist Who Experimented on Slaves. Retrieved June 16, 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/04/j-marion-sims/558248/

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