This Juneteenth, we remember the enslaved black women who were abused for the sake of medical advancement. Their stories have been largely left out of mainstream history, but they are an important part of our heritage. Enslaved black women were routinely subjected to painful and dangerous medical procedures without anesthesia, all in the name of “progress,” but it was nothing more than a guise for abuse. We owe it to them to remember their courage and strength in the face of adversity. Today, we honor their legacy.
Juneteenth is celebrated on June 19th, and marks the day in 1865 when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War had ended and slavery was abolished. This date is significant as it represented what was supposed to be a time of new beginnings. Slave ownership was not limited to plantation owners. The “father of modern gynecology”, Dr. J. Marion Sims, owned slaves and used them as guinea pigs to test his medical theories. He performed numerous, painful surgeries on black women without anesthesia because he believed they were immune to pain. If the patient’s slave owners agreed to provide clothing and pay taxes, he would accept temporary ownership of them until their “treatment” was completed. In Sims’ autobiography entitled, The Story of My Life, with respect to the advantages of temporary slave ownership, he states, “There was never a time that I could not, at any day, have had a subject for operation”. One of his most famous patients was a woman named Anarcha. She underwent at least 30 operations over the course of three years. Sims was quoted as saying that he “treated her almost like a dog” during her time as his patient.
Sims began performing experimental surgeries on enslaved black women without anesthesia, in an attempt to develop a new technique for treating vesicovaginal fistulas. These procedures were incredibly painful and often resulted in infection or death. As a result of his experimentations, Sims developed the vaginal speculum. This device is still in use today, but sadly came about as a result of the suffering of black women.
In honor of Juneteenth, let us remember the mothers of modern gynecology who were abused in the name of medical progress. Their strength and courage in the face of unimaginable pain and suffering is an inspiration to us all. Let us also use this day as a reminder to stand up against injustice, wherever it may be found. We have come a long way since 1865, but there is still much work to be done. Let us honor the legacy of these women by continuing the fight for equality and justice for all.
– “The Story of My Life.” J. Marion Sims, MD. Philadelphia: Lippincott & Co., 1884.
– “A Timeline of the Life of J. Marion Sims.” Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Accessed June 19, 2019.
– “Enslaved Black Women in Early Gynecology.” Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Accessed June 19, 2019.
– “Anarcha.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 19, 2019.
Vedantam, Shankar, et al. “Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology.” NPR, NPR, 7 Feb. 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/02/07/513764158/remembering-anarcha-lucy-and-betsey-the-mothers-of-modern-gynecology.