Skip to content
CityLab
Justice

A Monument to the Enslaved ‘Mothers of Gynecology’ Rises in Montgomery

Artist Michelle Browder’s statues honor African-American women subjected to medical experimentation — and highlight racial health disparities that persist today.  

Statues of Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey honor the enslaved women who were subjected to brutal experiments in the name of science.

Statues of Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey honor the enslaved women who were subjected to brutal experiments in the name of science.

Photographer: Jill Friedman

For more than 80 years, a statue on the grounds of the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, has recognized J. Marion Sims as the “father of gynecology.” The South Carolina-born Sims was a physician who launched his career in the Montgomery area in the mid-1800s, where he developed a series of groundbreaking surgical techniques and tools; later, he founded New York’s Women’s Hospital, the first hospital for women in the U.S.

But the monument makes no mention of why Sims is now among the most vilified figures in American medicine: He honed his experimental surgical techniques on the bodies of enslaved women, without anesthesia and without their consent. From the antebellum era until today, those women — most of whose names have been lost to time — have never received the same recognition for their unwitting contributions to medicine and history.