On the 23rd of February 2018, WHOI, held a live show called Anarcha’s Legacy as part of Black History Month. The purpose of the event was to draw to attention to obstetric fistula, by honouring and telling the story of Anarcha, an enslaved black woman from the 19th century who was forced to endure medical experiments by a surgeon named Dr. Marion Sims who endeavoured to perfect a surgical technique used to treat obstetric fistula.
We collaborated with the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to put on the show. The museum, which is based along the Halifax harbour that opens into the Atlantic Ocean, was the perfect location to host the event. The location was symbolic for the ocean connected us to countries such as Guinea, Mauritania and Sierra Leone where fistula remains a problem. If you look at a map, you'll see that these countries are diagonally across the Atlantic Ocean from Nova Scotia.
Our show was well-attended and consisted of presentations about obstetric fistula—its causes, the extent of the problem and ways forward. In honouring Anarcha, we told the story of the medical experiments she endured. There was also a spoken word presentation by Afua Cooper and Kilah Rolle.
Anarcha, a slave of 17-years old, who lived at the Wescott plantation in Alabama, suffered a vesicovaginal (fistula between bladder and vagina) and rectovaginal fistula (fistula between rectum and vagina). On her third day of labour, Sims was brought in to try and cure her. Initially, he was not interested in helping her. At the time, doctors struggled to find solutions to devastating women’s health conditions, one of them being obstetric fistula. Sims knew that he could gain much accolade if he could make a breakthrough in fistula care by improving the repair technique used to treat patients. He thus decided to work on Anarcha.
He used iron forceps to force out her baby who was stuck in her uterus. She was then sold to him by Mr. Wescott (owner of the plantation). It was then that Sims began to conduct a series of experiments on Anarcha, all of which were done without anesthesia. Sims performed 30 operations on Anarcha and it was on his 30th attempt that he successfully closed her fistula.
Sadly today, there’s still much debate as to whether Sims’ treatment of Anarcha was ethical. What is key to note is that Anarcha was slave, which meant she had no control over her body. She was property, chattel. The institution of slavery dehumanized blacks to the most extreme extent. In discussing Anarcha’s story, many commentators bring up the issue of consent. Did Anarcha agree, or did she not agree to have all these operations done to her? Consent, however, becomes irrelevant if we are to consider her as a slave and what it meant to be a slave. Sims did not need Anarcha’s consent to do what he did to her. The mere fact that he bought her from her master means that even if she said no to the operations, he would have still gone ahead and done them. And even if Anarcha did want to have the surgeries done to her, we must talk about the brutality to which Sims subjected her. Nonetheless, the glaring fact in Anarcha’s story is that you cannot agree or disagree to something if you are powerless.
History gets re-written from the perspective of those (in this case Marion Sims and his biographers) who have the most power in telling that history as they see fit.
There’s so much more that could be said in this article, but for the sake of time, it will conclude here. The point is, let us not obscure the facts of history. Whether good or bad they need to be told. Marion Sims made an important contribution to modern gynaecology and obstetric fistula care. Where is Anarcha situated in this achievement of perfecting the fistula repair technique? Anarcha’s body was exploited and given up as a sacrifice. She therefore becomes a hero in this story. A hero of circumstance because she did not choose to become a hero. Let us not forget that once her fistula was repaired, she would have gone back to working on the plantation. She would have been of no use to master Wescott in her state of incontinence (leaking urine and feces all the time).
Thanks to everyone who attended. Kim Cain did a superb job of capturing the sentiments evoked by the stories presented at the event.