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The Foremothers of Gynaecology

Lucy, Betsy, and Anarcha

In collaboration with Dr Aakila Sammy from Publett for International Women's Month


We have honoured remarkable women in science across the centuries. From Marie Curie's pioneering research on radioactivity in the 1800s to Henrietta Lacks's unintentional contribution to immortalised human cell lines in the 1900s and Rosalind Franklin's crucial work on the structure of DNA. Yet, even as their achievements shine, the names of their male counterparts, like Watson and Crick, often dominate the narrative.


Let's journey back a century or two. Were the experiences of Lucy, Betsy, and Anarcha, the

foremothers of gynaecology, similar? In the 19th century, Dr. James Marion Sims was

celebrated as a surgical hero and the father of gynaecology. His fame stemmed from

pioneering the first reliable surgery to treat vesicovaginal fistula, a severe childbirth

complication causing a hole between a woman's bladder and vagina, leading to continuous

urinary leakage and sometimes palliative care.


Sims conducted his initial attempts at a small hospital behind his home in Montgomery,

Alabama, focusing on enslaved African American women whom he housed. Over several

years, he performed numerous operations on these women. Historical records indicate that

12 enslaved women underwent experimentation, with only three identified by name: Lucy,

Betsy, and Anarcha.


While Sims did treat white women, indicating a universal need for treatment, he probably

began experimenting with black women first. Unfortunately, many records were destroyed

after slavery ended, obscuring our understanding of these events. Consequently, many who

suffered or displayed bravery may not receive proper historical recognition. But we're about to change that here!


Slave owners often viewed enslaved women as valuable assets due to their potential to

increase the slave population and, thus, the owner's wealth through labour. However, when complications arose during childbirth, rendering these women unable to work, slave owners sought alternative means to cover medical expenses and maintain profitability. This often involved leasing them to physicians like Sims for medical experimentation and treatment. Additionally, enslaved women who experienced complications during childbirth were often ostracised by their communities and left with no choice but to comply with the demands of their owners.


While on lease, these teenage girls aged 17 to 19 worked for the Sims family and were

subjected to experimentation, naked and restrained in front of an audience of male doctors.

Lucy was the first of the three women to undergo Sims's experimental operation and

remained conscious throughout the entire hour-long surgery. Post-surgery, Lucy developed

an infection, and even though Sims was able to cure her infection, her injuries did not heal,

which rendered the operation a failure. Betsy was operated on next with the same

outcome minus the infection.


Anarcha, operated on last, had the same results, but this did not stop Sims. Sims persisted in

his experiments, even when his male assistants quit. He eventually trained the women to

assist each other during surgeries, and over time, they became proficient enough to be

considered medical practitioners in their own right.


The turning point came after Anarcha's 30th surgery, where success was finally achieved. However, shortly afterwards, Sims closed his hospital and relocated north. The fate of the women after this point is noted as being returned to their masters, indicating the continued exploitation and oppression they faced despite their contributions to medical science.


While Sims's legacy indeed sparks ethical concerns about consent, anaesthesia, and racism, it's vital to recognise the dire circumstances faced by the women he treated and their

significant contributions to his work. Despite the troubling context of slavery, characterised

by ambiguous consent, potential underuse of anaesthesia, and the enduring belief that

black women could endure more pain (a misconception that persists in healthcare today),

these women sought relief from their suffering. Or was it their slave owners who sought to

protect their investment?


In addition to recognising the systemic exploitation and dehumanisation suffered by

enslaved individuals, it is important to celebrate the resilience and bravery of these women,

who played a crucial role in advancing gynaecological understanding and techniques.


Now, just a mile from the remaining Sims statue stands another monument honouring the

true mothers of gynaecology: Lucy, Betsy, and Anarcha (by the artist and activist Michelle

Browder). These teenagers played a profound role in shaping the field. It's imperative that we shift the narrative to acknowledge them as our foremothers in gynaecology when

recounting this history. Their names deserve a place in the textbooks as well.


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Scientia News wholeheartedly thanks Aakila Sammy, co-founder and CEO of Publett, for this interesting article on the pioneering individuals in the field of gynaecology. We hope you enjoyed reading this International Women's Month Special piece!

 

Follow them @Dr.Publett on Instagram and @Publett Limited on Linkedin for more information.

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Our last collaboration: Micro-chimerism and George Floyd's death



REFERENCES


National Library of Medicine. "Vesicovaginal fistula was a catastrophic complication of

childbirth for many enslaved women between 1845 and 1849." Accessed 28th February

2024. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2563360/#:~:text=Vesicovaginal%20fistula%20was%20a%20catastrophic,women%20between%201845%20and%201849.


ProQuest. "Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology."Accessed

28th February 2024.

https://www.proquest.com/openview/a02db7be4c84ed0066ed13e79513b6ad/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=41361.


Smithsonian Magazine. "A monument honouring enslaved women, known as the

'Mothers of Gynecology' has been erected."Accessed 28th February 2024.

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/mothers-of-gynecology-monument-honors-enslaved-women-180980064/


New York Historical Society. "To learn more about Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy, visit the

New York Historical Society's online exhibit, 'A Nation Divided: The Civil War Era"'.Accessed 28th February 2024. https://wams.nyhistory.org/a-nation-divided/antebellum/anarcha-betsy-lucy/.

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