A Harvard exhibit honors enslaved women’s contributions to reproductive health

When Dr. Lucy Lomas learned about the disturbing role of slavery in the origins of her medical specialty, gynecology, she said she felt “heaviness and heartache,” some of which she still carries with her. But she said she also feels a strong drive to create a better system of care for Black women, something that can’t be done without looking to the past.

She reflected on that legacy while visiting an exhibition at Harvard that explores the role of enslaved women in medicine. “Call and Response: A Narrative of Reverence to Our Foremothers in Gynecology” is a multi-media exhibit that centers on the lives of Lucy, Betsey, and Anarcha — three of the dozen enslaved Black girls and young women subjected to numerous experimental surgeries without anesthesia in the 19th century by J Marion Sims, the South Carolina doctor long-recognized as “the father of gynecology.”

Through his unethical experiments, Sims developed a surgical technique to repair vesicovaginal fistula, a birthing complication that causes an abnormal opening between the bladder and vagina. To achieve this, Anarcha alone was subjected to at least 30 surgeries, which did not completely heal her, according to Dell Marie Hamilton, exhibition curator and the Hutchins’ Image and Publications Rights Coordinator. He also invented the Sims speculum, a tool still used for pelvic exams, and the Sims position for gynecological examinations and treatment.

The show aims to imbue the memory of the “foremothers” with the respect, dignity, and compassion they weren’t afforded during their lives, said Lilly Marcelin, founder and executive director of the Resilient Sisterhood Project, a nonprofit dedicated to Black women’s reproductive health, which co-sponsored the exhibit.

The project began when Marcelin commissioned three paintings from artist Jules Arthur imagining what Lucy, Betsey, and Anarcha may have looked like. She was adamant, she said, that they be presented as adolescent girls “between 17 and 19″ and not as adult women, as they are often represented.

“This is a way to show compassion and gratitude to our ancestors — empathy they didn’t receive from the people who should have taken care of them, that many Black women still don’t get from medical professionals,” she said.

In addition to six pieces by Arthur, Hamilton curated pieces by sculptor Vinnie Bagwell, who was commissioned by New York City to create a public monument to replace Sims’s statue in New York City’s Central Park. The co-curators hope the exhibit will bring awareness to how systemic gender and racial discrimination continue to create reproductive health crises, such as the nationally high rates of maternal mortality as well as attacks on abortion access.

“The overturning of Roe v. Wade highlights the way that women, trans, non binary, and disabled people are still not considered fully realized human beings,” said Hamilton.

“Mothers of Gynecology”, a sculpture by Michelle Browder, is displayed at an exhibit at The Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. Vincent Alban For The Boston Globe

In Arthur’s painting “A Bond of Sisterhood,” two of the girls care for a third using home remedies offering a glimpse of what their interpersonal relationships could have looked like and acknowledging their work as surgical assistants and nurses, trained to help operate on one another after Sims’s medical assistants tired of working with him. In “Sisterly Resistance,” the trio gazes down as other unnamed women and girls pull down the statue of Sims, showing them as not just victims, but “fully realized human beings exercising autonomy and agency,” according to Marcelin.

Dina Beauchamp, a patient care technician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and an aspiring OB/GYN, also visited the exhibit and said it was the first time she learned of any of this history. She and Lomas were part of a trip organized by the New England Medical Association, a nonprofit seeking to build community for Black physicians in New England.

“What was most eye-opening was the history of these techniques that physicians are still using that have been used on me and my friends and loved ones,” she said. “It overwhelms me because there is so much work to be done.”

The painting “Legacies of Resilience” shows how Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy exist as part of a long legacy of Black women’s work, both voluntary and involuntary, as healers, birth workers, and innovators in medicine. In it, the three gaze down at numerous midwives, nurses, and doctors that succeeded them, including Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first Black female physician in the US, and Dr. Michele David, who was an associate professor of medicine at Boston University’s School of Medicine for 16 years, producing research about health disparities and raising awareness for the context of Sims’s work.

Today, David is chief of quality and safety at MIT Medical, a group practice that serves the MIT and Lincoln Laboratory communities, and said a lot of her career has been spent explaining to other physicians why patients from marginalized communities may have trouble fully trusting the medical establishment. This is why, she said, it is important for this history to be taught as part of medical education.

“Suspicion is not something that happens in a vacuum, and we have to work to earn that trust,” she said in the Hutchins Center, also visiting with NEMA. “Remember, the Tuskegee experiment happened in my lifetime. It didn’t end until 1972.”

Physicians and aspiring physicians from underrepresented backgrounds still face barriers to entering and staying in the medical profession, including a lack of support, lack of mentorship, and expectations of additional labor to solve diversity issues, according to Vonzella F. Bryant, NEMA’s executive director. According to Lomas, relatively low numbers of Black physicians in Boston, where “you rarely encounter other Black doctors,” can be isolating.

For Beauchamp, who looks forward to one day becoming an OB/GYN, she said the exhibit reinforces for her that she wants to be the kind of provider who believes that patients are the main authority on their body and that a doctor’s job is to help them navigate what they are feeling.

“I want to create a safe space for my patients to articulate themselves because they know their body best,” she said.

A guest looks at the artwork at an exhibit at The Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University.
Vincent Alban For The Boston Globe

Zeina Mohammed can be reached at zeina.mohammed@globe.com. Follow her @_ZeinaMohammed.

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