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How this Black doctor is exposing the racist history of gynecology

Dr. J. Marion Sims is known as the founding father of gynecology. He earned this title through contributions made by experimenting on enslaved Black women.
A painting of Dr. James Marion Sims, by American artist Robert Thom from the 1950s, is the only known representation of Lucy, Anarcha and Betsey, three enslaved women who Sims operated on, according to the American Historical Association.
A painting of Dr. James Marion Sims, by American artist Robert Thom from the 1950s, is the only known representation of Lucy, Anarcha and Betsey, three enslaved women who Sims operated on, according to the American Historical
/ Source: TODAY

There's one name Dr. Kameelah Phillips, an OB-GYN at Calla Women's Health in New York City, would prefer not to use in her operating room: Sims.

Depending on the context, the word can mean either a surgical tool, "Sims' vaginal speculum," or its inventor, Dr. James Marion Sims. Sims is known as the founding father of gynecology, but his legacy is fraught because of how he gathered much of his learnings — by operating on enslaved Black women without their consent or anesthesia.

Today, Phillips is "reclaiming" this story, she told TODAY. She prefers to call the tool "Lucy."

Lucy was an enslaved 18-year-old who almost died after Sims operated on her, attempting to fix her postpartum urinary incontinence, according to the Journal of the National Medical Association.

Phillips recalled feeling "shocked, appalled and disappointed," when she first learned about Sims' history over 10 years ago. In that moment, she said it was "a no-brainer" to stop using his name.

Dr. Kameelah Philipps refers to the Sims' surgical speculum as "Lucy," after an enslaved woman Dr. J. Marion Sims experimented on.
Dr. Kameelah Philipps refers to the Sims' surgical speculum as "Lucy," after an enslaved woman Dr. J. Marion Sims experimented on.provided

"(Sims) wasn’t going to hold space in my (operating room)," she said. "His instrument ... was developed off the pain of women who looked like me."

The disturbing history of Dr. J. Marion Sims

Almost five years ago, the name "J. Marion Sims" made headlines when someone spray-painted the word "racist" on his statue in New York City's Central Park, amid nationwide calls to remove monuments to people with ties to the Confederacy.

In the spring of 2018, city officials took down Sims' statue. Shortly after, Sims' name fell out of the national conversation and was again relegated to medical textbooks and classrooms, where his story is rarely told in full.

"Lots of people don’t know about it, but (that's) not a mistake," Phillips explained. "When people of color and women have our stories selectively removed from history books, why would I expect people to know about it?"

Renaming the Sims' speculum

A few years ago, multiple online petitions began circulating to rename medical devices named after Sims. Since then, thousands of people have signed them.

Phillips has been calling the device "Lucy" for over a decade, but occasionally she needs to tell a new surgical tech what "Lucy" refers to, and a history lesson usually follows.

Sims' Vaginal Speculum
Sims' vaginal speculum, which Dr. Kameelah Philipps refers to as "Lucy."Getty Images stock

"It’s an opportunity for education and enlightenment," she said. "Most of us throughout the day don’t think about these names, the things (Sims) has done, what he represents."

Lucy is one of three women who Sims experimented on whose names we know. The others are Anarcha and Betsey, but there are at least a dozen more, Bettina Judd, Ph.D., associate professor at University of Washington, who wrote a book on the history of medical experimentation on Black women, told TODAY.

In addition to creating an early version of the speculum, Sims is credited with the current procedure to repair vesicovaginal fistulas, a postpartum condition where urine leaks through the vagina. To gather this knowledge, he'd operate upwards of 20 times on a single patient, who'd be on all fours, Judd said.

James Marion Sims.
J. Marion Sims, born James Marion Sims in 1813, is considered by some to be the father of modern gynecology.Universal History Archive

Some of Sims' supporters say the women were in extreme pain and wanted the procedures. But Judd disagreed with this justification, explaining that the enslaved women didn't have the option to say no.

Others insist Sims was a product of his time, to which Judd answered, "Whose time are we imagining when we say that? We’re imagining that time depends on racist, white men. We’re imagining that slaves didn’t think it was wrong they were enslaved. Even among his peers, there were plenty of dissenters."

"Sims understood enslaved women not to have the same pain threshold as white women," Judd continued. "Through his texts and medical practice, you can see how he enacted that, (conducting) these horrendous experiments on Black women."

Sims also experimented on enslaved infants, according to medical journal Social History of Medicine. Searching for a cure for neonatal tetanus, he thought the baby's skull shape could be the cause, so he used an awl (a pointed tool for piercing holes) to forcibly align the bones. The procedure was fatal.

Sims' legacy now

According to Judd, Sims' legacy continues not just through instruments and procedures, but biases still held by medical professionals.

For example, research from 2016 found that medical students and residents held "false beliefs about biological differences between Blacks and whites," which "predict racial bias in pain perception and treatment recommendation accuracy," the study stated.

As Judd explained it, "The belief that Black folks, particularly Black women, are ... impervious to pain has a history. We're not just making it up."

Other data highlights the apparent effects of such beliefs: In 2020, the maternal death rate for Black people was almost triple the rate for whites. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show Black people are 2.1 times more like to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than white people and 1.6 times more likely to die from it.

Charles Johnson, a father of two, whose wife died after giving birth to their second child, told TODAY he thinks about Sims often. Kira Johnson, a 39-year-old Black woman, underwent a routine cesarean section in April 2016 and died several hours later of a postpartum, internal hemorrhage.

"When I found out about Dr. Sims, I was blown away that the ripples of his work are still so present in modern-day obstetrics," Johnson, who lives with his sons in Atlanta, said. "I refuse to believe that, had (Kira) been caucasian, that this would've happened."

Johnson's since created 4Kira4Moms, a foundation advocating for stronger maternal health regulations. He also believes telling Sims' full story is crucial to protect Black moms — but it's only "the first step," he said.

How to create change in health care practices

Johnson, Judd and Phillips all proposed changing how medical schools educate students about racial bias as one strategy to achieve more equal health care outcomes.

"We need to teach these things about the history of the American medical profession and how it can have catastrophic effects. It has to be mandatory," Johnson said. "You have to teach specific stories. It needs to be more than data. It needs to be real."

Phillips said she's "extremely humbled and proud" to help more people learn about Lucy, Anarcha and Betsey.

"For me to be an African American, female physician ... I don't take it lightly that I'm now in a position to tell their stories that they weren't able to tell (because) they had no voice," she said.

This was updated on Feb. 24, 2023.