For the month of February, each writer’s post will begin with the same line, which we’ve borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
All this happened.
It happened in the spring of 1845, in the heart of Alabama, deep in the center of it on the Westcott plantation.
Anarcha was giving birth.
It wasn’t an easy birth. Anarcha was a slave woman, and her body was formed by it. A hard life can contort your body, making it crumble in on itself, and this had happened to Anarcha. Rickets had deformed her pelvis, making the delivery of the baby she was trying to bring into the world almost impossible.
And she had been in labor for three days when John Marion Sims walked in the door.
We know many things about John Marion Sims. Important things that sound good on a metal plaque. A southern gentleman, today we can be treated in hospital wings named for him. We can even visit one of his three statues to see for ourselves what he looked like. There’s a long brow, frowning, and deep set eyes. He holds his hand over his heart, as if feeling sentimental.
We know almost nothing about Anarcha. We don’t know where she came from, or the shape of her face. We do know she was seventeen.
After Sims walked in the door, he decided to use iron forceps to pull Anarcha’s baby out—a technique he had no prior experience with. In his papers, Sims never mentions if the baby lived or died, but he was apparently encouraged by the practice, and tried it repeatedly on other slave women. Each of these attempts, however, resulted in an infant fatality. Sims blamed all of these deaths not on his own use of the forceps, but the slave mother’s inherent stupidity.)
You would wish it all to be over. You would wish Anarcha some peace. But after all of this happened, Anarcha was brought back again to see Sims, still hurting.
Today, the diagnosis of a “vesico-vaginal fistula”—more simply described as an unhealed tear in the vagina—is commonly given to patients living in a third world country. The wound not only leaves a patient in near constant pain, but incontinent as well. There’s no way to keep clean, to stop smelling, or to prevent infection. Thousands of women live like this, exiled from friends, family, their husbands and loved ones. Provided medical attention, today the tear is fairly easily treated.
But at the time, not only was there no treatment, but the study of gynecology had barely even begun. It was considered wildly inappropriate for a male doctor—and there were only male doctors—to examine the anatomy of living female patients. This meant there was no clear understanding of how menstruation worked, or how to solve many basic gynecological issues that are easily cured today. (A few solutions were offered to the problem: for instance, it was permissible for a doctor to avert his eyes and reach his hand up a patient’s skirts to perform an examination. The results weren’t anything to write medical papers about.)
But when Anarcha was brought back to Sims a few days after her labor, hurt and unable to work, Sims grew excited.
He instructed her to sit on a table outside in the barn. He made her spread her legs, and performed his examination. Anarcha was told that she had a vesico-vaginal fistula, and that Sims was going to fix it. Don’t mistake this for any form of well-wishing on Sims part. His was a rare opportunity—to be able to perform experimental surgery on a patient who had no choice but to consent. Curing a fistula such as this would skyrocket his career. It would change the world.
We imagine gynecological treatments happening with the woman lying their back, feet propped up in stirrups. This is, however, a technique developed by doctors in the 1940’s and 50’s developed for ease of medical aid. When Sims examined Anarcha, she knelt on all fours on top of his wooden examination table. He performed his first surgical attempt to cure the fistula right then and there, without the use of anesthesia or any explanation of his actions. Sims believed that minorities—including Irish women—were naturally immune to pain, and had no such need of anesthesia. Believe that though he may, he does write that Anarcha screamed.
It was the first of over thirty surgeries for Anarcha, and as time went on and the fistula didn’t heal, others joined her. Twelve other women were operated on by Sims, though we only know two more names: Betsy and Lucy. Sims developed a makeshift hospital for these women, who—without any other care provided—often worked to nurse each other back to health. Sims did allow them access to opium during their recovery, but considered food and water deterrents to the healing process. For two weeks after surgery, they were fed just enough to keep them moving.
At times, other doctors would come and visit the hospital. Sometimes they would help to hold Anarcha down during surgery. Other times they left in horror and disgust.
Eventually, Sims was successful. He healed Anarcha, and others, and soon became famous for his work. He travelled the country, treating white women who he found were unable to tolerate the pain of surgery, and to whom he administered ether. Today, he is known as “the father of gynecology” and is loved for—as his statues say—“treating empress and slave alike.”
You won’t find any statues of Anarcha. No hospital wings named for her.
Her voice is silent in this story, suppressed and pushed down.
But this happened.
All of this happened.