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Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology

<em>Illustration of Dr. J. Marion Sims with Anarcha by Robert Thom. Anarcha was subjected to 30 experimental surgeries. </em>
Pearson Museum, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine
Illustration of Dr. J. Marion Sims with Anarcha by Robert Thom. Anarcha was subjected to 30 experimental surgeries.

This week, we're returning to our archives to grapple with the troubling history of medical experimentation on African Americans and how that history connects to the unequal medical care African Americans still receive today.

Black patients continue to receive less pain medication for broken bones and cancer. Black children receive less pain medication that white children for appendicitis. One reason for this is that many people inaccurately believe that blacks literally have thicker skin than whites and experience less pain.

The failure to recognize the pain of black patients can be tracked far back in the history of American medicine. Dr. James Marion Sims, a 19th-century physician, has been dubbed the father of modern gynecology. He's honored by three statues across the United States, one of which describes him as treating both empresses and slave women.

This week, we consider what — and whom — this inscription leaves out. Invisible in his shadow are the enslaved women on whom he experimented. Today, they are unknown and unnamed except for three: Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey.

Sims invents the speculum. I invent the wincing, the if-you-must of it, the looking away, the here of discovery.

We speak with Dr. Vanessa Gamble, a physician and historian, to investigate Dr. Sims' complicated legacy. He perfected a surgery that continues to help women today, but he practiced this technique through experimental surgeries on unanesthetized enslaved women.

We also speak with poet Bettina Judd. She helps us connect the experiences of Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey to the ways black patients are treated today.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, and Renee Klahr. Our intern is Chloe Connelly, and our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.
Chloe Connelly