Skip to main content
Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine - Barts and The London

Wolfson midwife calls for recognition of enslaved black women experimented on by the “father of gynaecology”

Heidi Downes, Antenatal Screening Counsellor Midwife at the Wolfson Institute, is campaigning for recognition of the role of young black women in the advancement of obstetric practice. In an opinion piece published on The Conversation, Heidi explains that enslaved black women were “gifted by their owners” to the so-called father of gynaecology, Marion James Sims, who used them in a series of experimental surgeries in America in the 1850s.

news image

Petition organiser Heidi Downes

Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey, who had recently given birth and suffered irreparable post-delivery trauma, were just three of the women whose injuries made them ideal for Sims to use to perfect his techniques under abhorrent conditions. Sims believed that Black people did not feel pain like white people, so used no pain relief. Documentation shows that 17-year-old Anarcha suffered up to 30 brutal operations at the hands of Sims.

Heidi said: “Statues honour their torturer, yet their names have been omitted from the medical history books. I want this crucial part of obstetrics history to be included in the curriculum. The story of what these women went through must be passed down to students. The women who were treated in this barbaric way deserve to be recognised. My petition (which now has over 8,500 signatures) is calling for a permanent sculpture or statue to honour these forgotten Black women.”