By Veronica Maria Pimentel, MD, FACOG
Like most obstetricians and gynecologists, I did not have formal teaching on the history of our profession and how it explains our current health disparities. Since prior to my maternal–fetal medicine fellowship, I have advocated for research and policies to help close the maternal health gap. In the meantime, the public health crisis of racial injustice became front and center in the United States and propelled me to understand how the establishment of obstetrics and gynecology as a medical field is painfully intertwined with slavery and the economic growth of America.
We may never know the names of most of the enslaved Black women who underwent repeated experimental surgeries and whose organs were displayed without their consent in the name of advancing science. However, the names of Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy remain. As documented by Deirdre Cooper Owens in Medical Bondage, between 1844 and 1849, Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and nine other unidentified enslaved women and girls worked on the slave hospital founded by Dr. J. Marion Sims. Dr. Sims repeatedly operated on them without anesthesia to perfect his fistula technique. Anarcha underwent 30 experimental surgeries in a period of four years.
These enslaved women were more than “medical specimens.” Despite the dehumanizing treatment they endured, they were complex women and mothers who were knowledgeable and skillful. They served as Sims’ surgical nurses and learned to heal themselves and each other from the assault their bodies endured from both the surgical experimentation and the reproductive and forced manual work they performed.
It is long overdue for us to know the names of the women whose bodies, conditions, and work helped advance our field. I am pleased that ACOG accepted my proposal to dedicate February 28 and March 1 to recognizing the contributions of Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and other enslaved Black women to obstetrics and gynecology.
This February 28 and March 1, I encourage you to take the time to learn about Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and the other Black women who shaped so much of what we know about our field. We need to understand how our history, beliefs, and practices affect the care of our patients and their outcome. Only by doing so can we close the maternal health gap.