Medical Exploitation of Black Women


Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images

In the 1840s, James Marion Sims, a white doctor in Montgomery, Alabama, performed painful experiments without anesthesia on Lucy, an enslaved Black woman, while other doctors observed.

Sims was lauded as the “Father of Gynecology” after his experiments on at least seven enslaved Black women and girls in Montgomery between 1845 and 1849 helped him develop a technique to repair a chronic complication of childbirth. Though the potentially life threatening experiments caused excruciating pain, Sims legally needed permission only from the enslaved women’s “owners.”

Sims’s experiments on Lucy were unsuccessful and nearly killed her with severe blood poisoning. He nonetheless continued to perform procedures on enslaved women, sometimes drugging them so they could not resist. Sims subjected Anarcha, an enslaved teenager, to at least 13 operations without anesthesia before he developed a repair technique that was deemed safe to attempt on white patients.

Unable to refuse treatment or withhold consent, Lucy, Anarcha, and Sims’s other enslaved patients were powerless to protect themselves from medical exploitation. During and after enslavement, physicians often denied Black people basic dignity and personhood through mistreatment that reflected the prevailing and dehumanizing myth that Black people were less sensitive to pain than white people.

Sims was celebrated for his medical achievements; his statue remains on the Alabama State Capitol grounds today. But increasingly, his brutal mistreatment of Black women is informing a broader understanding of his legacy as an especially cruel chapter in our history of racial injustice. In April 2018, a statue of Sims was removed from New York City’s Central Park.