Sometimes in 1855, a certain James Marion Sims commissioned the first ever female hospital in New York City. Coupled with this achievement was his discovery of a treatment for vesicovaginal fistula through a surgery that earned him the honour of being celebrated as the father of Gynecology albeit controversial.
James Marion Sims’ controversy is rooted in the revealing accounts of him using African women forced into slavery for his experiments. It is alleged that Dr Sims performed surgeries on his subjects without anesthesia. He argued that the operations were not painful enough to warrant any form of anesthesia.
Sims further reasoned that “black people did not feel as much pain as white people” and therefore didn’t require anesthesia during surgery. Many women died at the hands of the man whom some people now regard as “the father of modern gynaecology”.
Between 1845 and 1849, James Marion Sims operated on 12 African slaves in his hospital but considering that several women died in his hands and on the Wescott plantation, the number is likely to be more.
Of the many African women he used in his experiments, only three women were named in his records and they were Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy. Anarcha was his very first victim.
Anarcha Wescott was given her surname after she was purchased as a young girl from Africa by the owner of the Wescott plantation where she and 75 other women worked.
At the age of 17, Anarcha became pregnant and in June 1849, spent 3 days in labour. Her inability to have a child was due to the fact that she had rickets which disfigured her pelvis. She was unable to have her child after being in labour for three days.
Hearing about her case and seeing an opportunity to experiment, Dr Sims took her in and performed several experimental operations on her. Without giving her anesthesia, and knowing whant exactly he was doing, Dr Sims experimented on Anarcha to help her have her child. After the first 4 operations, Anarcha had the child.
Later on, however, Anarcha was returned to Dr Sims after several
unhealed tears in her vagina and rectum casued her severe pain and bleeding. It was during this time that she underwent 30 more surgeries together with other African women such as Lucy and Betsy before he was able to close her wounds.
According to the Washington Post, Dr Sims expressed concern in his records stating that he thought Anarcha and the other ladies might die but they didn’t and it was through these successful operations that he earned himself the title of the Father of Gynecology.
Nothing is known of Anarcha after she survived the surgery but it is most likely she returned to work on the Wescott plantation until her last days. It is hard to fish out information about her personal life as the lives of slaves were not documented or recorded.
Ever since the discovery of his exploits on African women, the legacy of Dr Sims has been in question. More recently, in April 2018, his statute in New York City was removed following demands of its removal in honour of the women he exploited. In several instances, Anarcha, Lucy and Betsy are considered as the Mothers of Gynecology.