As we take our first fabulous steps into Women’s History Month, let's spend some time with the historical contributions 19th century Black women made in the medical sciences. You might be getting bits and pieces of the story surrounding 12 enslaved Black women experimented on by J. Marion Sims. The stories of Black and Indigenous women of color being used as test-subjects went untold for centuries in favor of widely celebrated accomplishments of the “Fathers” of gynecology. The removal of Sim’s statue from New York City Central Park in 2018 was our public reckoning with the system of unethical practices that pioneered today’s OBGYN field.
Unfortunately, we still don’t have the clearest picture on who Lucy, Anarcha and Betsey were beyond the field of women’s health. Where did they go after the experiments? Who did they become? What role did they play in the Black community? And how does their legacy affect Black women today?
We encourage you to ask these questions while you reflect on stories of Black and Women’s History. Here are 5 terms you could use along your journey to honoring the past and ushering in a more just future:
1.“Ancestral Technology and Inherited Wisdom”
Black women were operating as healers, midwives, doctors and mothers way before the white medical system intruded into their reproductive health. Medical wisdom was preserved from African ancestry and developed into technology that could heal and protect. This technology is what helped them create sophisticated measures used to protect their agency on auction block sales.
O.W. Green recalls that his grandmother was a slave nurse for 37 years on a doctor’s plantation. Despite her owner taking public credit for her work she made sure to pass down her medical and pharmaceutical knowledge to her community. There’s evidence that Black people shared new medical knowledge and long-held folk wisdom to heal slave communities. These examples offer a portal into how ancestral knowledge was transformed into technology that helped Black women retain bodily agency during auctions to resisting illness by healing slave communities.
2. “Blood Mothers”
Black women forged sacred and secret ties with one another through the symbolic and cultural significance of “blood.” Blood was a metaphor for the bond between West African mothers and their American born descendants. Blood gave them the ability to conceive and give birth.
“Life and death were contained in the blood, from the release of menstrual blood and blood lost during miscarriages to the symbolic use of blood as a mode for purification.”
Black Women’s Experiences in Slavery and Medicine
Medical Bondage by Deirdre Cooper Owens
These matriarchal networks helped distribute folk knowledge, combat negative views about Black bodies, offered resistance and ultimately preserved the wellbeing of the community. The intrusion of white southern doctors who replaced midwives compromised these deeply personal and ancestral relationships. Because they believed in the double inferiority of the Black women they experimented on, natural biological conditions like menstruation and pregnancy were pathological. Sadly, it was the American conception of womanhood, health and value served as the seeds for modern gynecology instead of the West African “Blood Mother”
3. “Medical Plantation”
A medical plantation is constructed specifically for the use of Black bodies as raw testing material for scientific advancements. Enslaved patients lived in isolation from family, friends and Blood Mothers while doing the same domestic and agricultural slave work.
Dr Sims’ medical plantation lost the support of his local white community and medical assistants two years into its founding, so he trained his enslaved patients to work as surgical nurses as well. While healing from their own scars these women would hold each other down for Dr Sims’ repeated experiments without anesthesia. They would also birth children while under his care. Other white slave owners often who had sexual relations with Black women, so there were many white doctors who called themselves the “Great White Fathers” of gynecology because they literally became biological fathers in the process.
We only get to peak at Lucy, Anarcha, Betsey and the many other Black women experimented on in the 1800s through medical writing and autobiographical reports from medical plantations. If they survived the experience, we don’t know what they went on to do after the experience. In Dr Sims’ case it’s entirely reasonable to say his experiments could’t have succeeded without training Black women to become his surgical assistants. While J Marion Sims became President of the AMA a decade later it’s unknown who these women went on to become.
4. The “Strong Black Woman” Trope
The legacy of Black medical experimentation is still very much alive. The network of unethical practices used to unearth modern medicine depended on ignoring, reducing or ridiculing the pain Black people experienced during surgical experimentation. In fact surgery was rare up until the 1850s because you had to be conscious throughout the process and the success rate was abysmal.
In one of 30 surgery reports on Anarcha, Dr Sims commented on her remarkable ability to bear pain. This sentiment is actually a reflection of what white surgeons had to believe about enslaved patients undergoing unanesthetized surgery. The release of Dr Sims 1852 article on vesico-vaginal fistulae surgery prompted a 100% increase in sexual surgery articles in medical journals. Naturally, more white doctors had to believe Black people can tolerate more pain than white people. This is how belief is transformed into American medical culture
A recent survey of white medical students found half endorsed biological differences between Black and whites. Those who did also were more likely to suggest inappropriate medical treatment for black patients. The disparities in our healthcare system have become further exasperated by COVID-19, which probed the AMA to declare racism a public health crisis in November 2020.
The United States medical care system is still grappling with disproportionate birth related deaths in marginalized communities. While we level out the playing field for birthing people of color we can still celebrate the things we feel are going right. Black Doulas and non-medical support throughout pregnancy deserves our increased attention, and for good reasons! Just having a doula present at a birth has been found to shorten labor, reduce postpartum depression, lower the rates of cesarean deliveries among other positive outcomes. But it's still important to recognize we cannot continue to leave the current maternal health crisis at the feet of Black doulas or Black women.
Our work at Kiira Health is painting a vibrant view of reproductive futurism for young people. By helping them build proactive, consistent and reliable relationships with their body, we are encouraging everyone to live longer healthier lives through multicultural quality care. Join us this month as we honor the past and uplift the future for the young women and non binary folks in our community.
Happy Women’s History Month!
Written by Reem Abdalla | Community Development at Kiira
Edited by Dr Candice Fraser | Chief Medical Officer at Kiira