Setting the (Medical) Record Straight: Anarcha & Her Body of Work

Setting the (Medical) Record Straight: Anarcha & Her Body of Work

Today and everyday we celebrate and honor Anarcha, a foremother of modern gynecology who was subjected to torture and experimentation at the hands of the sadistic and racist dr. marion james sims (lowercase, because he doesn't deserve the title).

He performed on her without anesthesia for five years and experimented on her body in 30 surgeries before finding a suitable repair for her vesico-vaginal fistula. But, because she was held as a slave she could not formally give consent to these procedures by default.

Anarcha and two other women, Lucy and Betsey, labored as slaves, patients, nurses, and as surgical assistants simultaneously as they were being surgically experimented on. He also performed these sadistic acts on the bodies of about nine other unidentified enslaved women.

The image often associated with Anarcha and dr. sims stems from a 1952 painting by Robert Thom, and his Norman Rockwell-style portrait of Sims at work, as seen above. 

But we are not here to praise dr. sims like Thom did through his brush strokes. We must instead confront a harsh reality, as the University of Michigan UMMA Exchange so viscerally explains:

The illustration reproduces a racist, medical gaze, as it prompts the observer to join the ranks of other visiting surgeons who ogle Lucy as a medical object of curiosity.

Through proper contextualization and careful visual study, we might challenge this supposed “great moment in medicine” and consider the contradictions of “scientific achievement” and the entanglements of violence, slavery, and medicine.

And yet, when creating this work, this nuance was decidedly absent. Instead, dr. sims is "depicted with a benevolent bearing as he inspects his patient; in the background, two Black women cower behind a curtain. The painter inflates the likely age of the ladies: Anarcha was thought to be 17 when she was treated by Sims. And there’s no sign of the restraints that would be used in place of anesthesia or other numbing techniques (source)."

Instead, we will continue to honor and celebrate the lives of Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsy. we must say their names and share their stories as the true Mothers of Gynecology and vehemently denounce dr. sims as a forefather of modern gynecology.

It is their legacy that must live on, not that of their oppressors.

Read more of their history in the masterful book Medical Bondage by Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens!

Back to blog

Leave a comment