Q. Did J. Marion Sims provide anesthesia for Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy or any of the enslaved women on which he experimented?

A. That is not likely. There is no discussion of it in his autobiography, nor his books on uterine surgery. In a speech before the New York Academy of Medicine in 1857, he disclosed that he did not think anesthesia necessary for pelvic surgeries in general. His callous attitude about the pain levels in his patients, especially as a surgeon, make his stance more disturbing in my view.  As an experimenting surgeon, Sims was not only experimenting with surgical tools, but procedures as well. He took particular interest in describing the best positioning for his subjects.

While experimenting on Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy through these arduous surgeries, he required them to position themselves on their knees with their heads on their forearms and tailbones in the air. Anesthetized patients would not be able to hold this position. A diagram of this exploratory position can be found in his book on uterine surgery, featured in the video poem below:

Run on Sentence from Bettina Judd on Vimeo.

(yes, that right triangle IS A WOMAN)

See the original diagram in the text here.

The quote before the New York Academy of Medicine is addressing this protocol not the care of his patients or any real assessment of their pain levels. In the speech, he introduces a newer position, (the diagram in the pamphlet here presents a white-appearing Victorian woman) which would allow surgical procedure on an anesthetized patient.


(From Silver sutures in surgery : the anniversary discourse before the New York Academy of Medicine, delivered in the new building of the Historical Society on November 18, 1857 - J. Marion Sims )

He states: 

“The patient being thus rolled over as much as possible on the front, the assistant standing at her back, elevates with the left hand the right side of the nates, while the right holds the speculum which draws up the perineum, allowing the pressure of the atmosphere to dilate the vagina so as to bring every part of it into view. This position permits the use of anæsthetics if desired, but I never resort to them in these operations, because they are not painful enough to justify the trouble, and risk attending their administration.” (italics mine) (31)

Since this is a conclusion he comes to later in his career after leaving the south and his enslaved subjects, and because his surgeries on Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy and their unnamed enslaved cohorts were experimental and exploratory, Sims most likely did not use any substance that would make it even more difficult for his subjects to hold the position that would allow him to see “what no man has seen before” (his words). He did note the importance of attendants on either side to maintain the position of the subject, however.

A note about the attendants:

For a good portion of his career in Alabama, he was without apprentices or attendants. That painting that depicts Anarcha on an exam table with two attendants on her side and Lucy and Betsey peeping around the corner in fear and curiosity? Maybe, for a very short time and the impulse to paint these white attendants is a whitewashing of this unfortunate history. Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy and the other unnamed enslaved women he used for experimentation were the attendants. After many medical professional abandoned him and his practice, Sims confesses, “[…] at last I performed operations only with the assistance of the patients themselves.” (Story of My Life 242)

This is why I wrote “The Opening” which, in Anarcha’s voice, describes the intimate experience of being attended to by women who share her same position and fate: “Dear Lucy, Dear Betsey, all of us/ that we weren’t so perfectly broken.”

More at www.patientpoems.com.

I wrote poems that attempt to uncover this history. I am happy to discuss what is imagined, and what is very real.