Say her name…
…. is a phrase synonymous with a movement that brings awareness to Black women and girls who are victims of police brutality, abuse and harm. We shouted “Say her Name” about the injustices done to Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor and the countless and nameless other Black women who have been fatally shot by police. But we can go one or more further, by shouting “Say Her Name” for another awareness; another cause where Black women suffered inequities that not many people know about. And for sure, not many people, if any, know their names. Until now…
Their names are Betsey, Lucy and Anarcha and they were enslaved Black women. Between 1844 and 1849, these young enslaved women, plus nine other unidentified women and girls were operated on at a slave hospital founded by Dr. J. Marion Sims, who repeatedly operated on them, without permission and without anesthesia, in an effort to discover new and successful ways to perform a medical technique to repair fistulas. Anarcha alone endured over 30 experimental surgeries over a four-year span.
Until recent years, Dr. Sims was touted and celebrated as the “Father of Gynecology”. Indeed, his research made great strides in the field. Yet, we now know, and acknowledge, the horrible truth behind his research and inventions. Today, we present to you Camille Davis-Williams, M.D., who has been asked by the advisory board of the Georgia OBGYN Society to pay homage to the contributions of these women to the gynecology world. Dr. Davis-Williams has written a statement regarding this atrocity, and we are sharing it with you here.
Say her name….
Betsey, Lucy and Anarcha.
Dr. Camille Davis Williams Acknowledgement
I have been selected by the advisory board of the Ga OBGYN Society to join Dr. Anne Patterson in acknowledging the individual and collective contribution of the ‘named’ slave mothers (Betsey, Lucy and Anarcha) to our OBGYN specialty. It is significant that the timing of this acknowledgment on the last day of February, Black History Month, is juxtaposed with the beginning of the month of March, “Women’s History Month”! This timing captures the spirit of the current challenging times as our healthcare system continues to grapple with controlling the catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic while addressing the social determinants of health which all too often are undergirded by systemic racism.
Medical history has not heretofore given voice to the voiceless African American enslaved patients who suffered in silence as live clinical and surgical experimental test subjects used to greatly advance medical science. On today, February 28, 2021, we, the Ga. OBGYN Society, pay homage to Betsey, Lucy, and Anarcha et al. for enduring the unimaginable pain and suffering which led to innovations and advancements in surgery and anesthesia that continue to impact women’s health today.
Our knowledge of the voices is embedded in stories passed down through generations and are now being shared with our younger generations who do not accept further historical ‘gloss over’ accounts of unimaginable human sacrifices.
Dr. J. Marion Sims perfected the correction of vesicovaginal fistulae in women who had experienced obstructed labors. These laboring mothers were unable to deliver babies that were too large to fit through the birth canal which caused crush injuries between the bladder and uterus rendering the two organs connected. This anatomic catastrophe renders them completely incontinent of urine. He operated on these three named patients multiple times without anesthesia including operating on Anarcha 30+ times.
I first learned about the three slave mothers and their care as a medical student in the late 70s. During instruction, I was chided to “call their names”! Having been raised in the ‘deep south’, I knew our rules of engagement which included not demeaning the sacrifices of those who experienced unearned suffering by engaging in callous ‘mixed company’ small talk about victims. As explained in a statement by Dr. MLK, I clearly understood that the ‘thingification of a people by 244 years of chattel slavery reduced them to be subliminally depersonalized by their owners and viewed as less than comparably human’.
I, therefore, declined over and over to ‘call their names’. As many of us have evolved in ‘unlearning’ some of the tenents that bind us, I celebrate a word of wisdom regarding the Great Wall of China: “Those who walk the wall should never forget those who built it.” I call their names: Betsey, Lucy and Anarcha and I humbly thank them (et al.) for giving their all.
Camille Davis-Williams, M.D.
Illustration of Dr. J. Marion Sims with Anarcha by Robert Thom. Anarcha was subjected to 30 experimental surgeries.
Pearson Museum, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine