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Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey were
enslaved women from plantations
in and around Montgomery,
Alabama. With neither consent nor
anesthesia, they were experimented
upon by Dr. J. Marion Sims in the
1840s. After publishing the results
of his “success,” Sims moved to
New York to seek fame and fortune.
Within a decade, he became known
as the Father of Gynecology.

By contrast, Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey fell into history. They changed the world, only to beforgotten by it.

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Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey lived

and worked on different plantations

near Montgomery, Alabama, in the

1840s. All three women developed

a painful medical condition after

childbirth that caused them to

lose control of their bladders and

bowels. Enslaved women with this

condition were kept apart from

other workers. There was no cure.

Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey were

told they would have to live with the

pain and shame of their injuries for

the rest of their lives.

The men who enslaved Anarcha,

Lucy, and Betsey were frustrated

with their condition. They wanted to

find a cure, not because they cared

deeply about the enslaved women,

but because the women could no

longer bear children. In 1845, all

three enslavers sought the advice

of Dr. James Marion Sims.

Like many doctors in the 1800s, J.

Marion Sims was very interested

in medical advancement and

experimentation. He practiced all

kinds of medicine, from dentistry

to pediatrics to general surgery.

In 1835, he moved from South

Carolina to Alabama after two of his

patients died. Eventually, he settled

in Montgomery County, where he

came to the attention of the men

who enslaved Anarcha, Lucy, and


Sims had no previous interest or
training in treating female bodies,
yet a coincidental discovery about
positioning patients for surgery
led him to believe that a cure was
possible—and that this would be
his opportunity to make his mark
on the medical field. He made
arrangements to care for Anarcha,
Lucy, and Betsey at his own cost,
promising their enslavers he
would return them cured within six

While Sims claims to have obtained
permission from at least one of
these women—who, to be sure,
desperately wanted to be healed of
their condition—the reality is that,
as enslaved persons, these women
were not legally entitled to refuse.


In the late spring of 1845, Anarcha
was seventeen and pregnant.
Enslaved on the Westcott plantation
near Montgomery, Alabama,
Anarcha’s body had been shaped
by forced labor and malnutrition. It’s
possible that her pelvis had been
disfigured by rickets and vitamin
deficiencies. She went into labor in

Her baby refused to come—the
“passenger was too large for the
passage.” When labor extended
beyond seventy-two hours,
Anarcha’s enslavers solicited the
help of Dr. Sims. Sims was known to
have an aversion to “investigating
the organs of the female pelvis,”
but he was the best in town
with surgical implements.1 Sims
performed a forceps delivery of
Anarcha’s baby. It is not known
whether the child lived or died.

Five days later, Sims was called
back to examine complications
resulting from Anarcha’s prolonged,
obstructed birth. She suffered from
obstetric fistula—a birth trauma–
induced loss of tissue in the vaginal
canal. Actually, Anarcha had two
fistulae, openings from her vagina
to her bladder and her rectum. She

was uncontrollably leaking urine
and feces from her vagina. The pain
of excoriated labia and thighs, along
with foot drop, rendered her unable
to work or perform daily tasks.

Sims informed Anarcha’s enslavers
that there was no cure, and that she
would require care for the rest of
her life—costing rather than making
money. Less than a month later,
another enslaved woman named
Betsey was brought to Sims with
the same condition, followed soon
by Lucy. Now, despite his initial
aversion to women’s health, Sims
recognized the potential fame and
financial reward in fistula cases.
He decided to take on the three
women—and approximately seven
others—as experimental subjects,
expanding his small outbuilding
for “negro surgical cases” to twelve
patient beds.

While at least ten women endured
Sims’s trials and errors, Anarcha
underwent the most experiments—
as many as 30 procedures in
three-and-a-half years, all without
treatment for pain, and often to
an audience of curious doctors.
While anesthetics were not widely
available at the time, Sims was

aware of the painkilling effects
of opium and nitrous oxide—
nevertheless, he believed the
surgeries were “not painful enough
to justify the trouble, and risk.”2
Sims performed a final surgery on
Anarcha in 1849, claiming to have
cured her injuries with the use of
silver thread and a “clamp suture”
mechanism that would soon be
abandoned. Soon thereafter, he
relocated to New York City to
market and capitalize on his self-
styled methods and tools.

While anesthetics were not widely

available at the time, Sims believed
the surgeries were “not painful enough to justify the trouble, and risk.”

1. Sims, J. Marion. The Story of My Life. 1888.
2. Sims, J. Marion. Silver Sutures. 1858.

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