The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New clinic planned where enslaved women were tortured in medical experiments

Michelle Browder has plans for a museum and clinic where 19th-century physician J. Marion Sims conducted cruel medical trials on Black women

Michelle Browder stands on the concrete pad where the Mothers of Gynecology Monument was installed in September 2021 in Montgomery, Ala. (Michele McDonald for The Washington Post)

Michelle Browder stood on the same plot of land in Montgomery, Ala., where James Marion Sims once conducted cruel medical experiments on enslaved Black women. She felt disturbed and empowered in equal measure.

Browder, 51, an artist and civil rights activist, decided to buy the land that once housed the hospital where Sims — a 19th-century physician often called the “father of gynecology” — operated without anesthesia on Black women who did not consent to his torment.

Browder has a clear concept in mind for the land: In the exact location where Sims’s hospital once stood, she plans to open a two-story museum and health-care center called the Mothers of Gynecology Health and Wellness Clinic.

Her goal, Browder said, is to illuminate Sims’s deeds, while also addressing the many shortfalls that still to exist in the medical system for women of color. Construction on the property is expected to begin next year on Mother’s Day.

“I want it to be a place where people can reckon with the history regarding Black women and the sacrifices and the inhumane treatment that they were given in the name of health and science,” she said. “I need it to serve as a place for healing so that we can start looking more into women’s health issues.”

The first time Browder learned about Sims, she was a student at the Art Institute of Atlanta. On her professor’s desk, she spotted a small print of a painting by American illustrator Robert Thom, who was commissioned to create 45 pieces depicting the history of medicine.

The painting that was on her professor’s desk is titled “J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon.” It shows Sims with folded arms, gazing at a Black woman kneeling on a medical exam table. Two other White men stand staring at the patient, while two Black women hide behind a curtain, peeking their heads out in fear.

“I didn’t like the look of it,” Browder said.

He was harassed for the Black Santa on his lawn. Now, he’s a professional Black Santa.

Unsettled by the image, she began researching. According to the illustration’s description, the painting portrays Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey — three of about a dozen women and girls whom Sims experimented on repeatedly from 1844 to 1849. The women simultaneously were servants and patients, catering to Sims’s every whim during a five-year period as he conducted excruciating procedures on them.

“He represents everything that’s wrong with our country,” Browder said. “Wherever there is bias and hatred and discrimination, that’s what he represents.”

The more information Browder gleaned about the doctor’s torturous experiments, the more the history haunted her. She learned that Sims is lauded in medical journals for groundbreaking techniques in women’s reproductive health, and he is credited with inventing the standard vaginal speculum as well as a surgery for vesicovaginal fistula, then a “catastrophic complication” of childbirth.

He was once the president of the American Medical Association and the American Gynecological Society. There are still several statues valorizing him across the country.

Bullies mocked his shoes. His friend, 12, got him a new pair with his own allowance.

Starting from the time she was a college student, Browder made it her mission to memorialize Sims’s victims and underscore the racism he helped sow in the medical field.

“My initial instinct, at the age of 18, was to create a piece of artwork,” explained Browder, who based her graduation portfolio on the Thom painting.

The painting — and what it represents — has been at the forefront of her work. In 2016, she opened a civil rights tour company called More Than Tours, which stops at lynching sites, Montgomery’s former market that auctioned enslaved people, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s home and neighborhood, as well as other historical monuments around the city. She stops the tour bus at a statue of Sims, located on the lawn of the Alabama State House.

Browder has recounted the story of Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey more times than she can count.

“I’m still deeply troubled by it,” Browder said. “This is a man that created all kinds of atrocities to Black bodies. It spikes my blood pressure every time.”

Knowing it would be nearly impossible to get the Sims statue removed — in 2017, Republican Gov. Kay Ivey banned monuments from being removed in Alabama if they have been on public property more than 40 years — Browder decided to create a counter-monument to honor the women subjected to Sims’s torture.

The monument — sculpted out of steel and discarded material to signify that the women were treated as castoff objects — was created by Browder and a team of artists. The monument was completed in September 2021 and stands in downtown Montgomery — just over a mile from the Sims statue.

The reception “has been amazing,” Browder said.

“It’s a teaching monument,” she continued. “I wanted to produce a piece of art that would live on, but also teach and educate people about how we can, in essence, offer reparations to Black women in our country.”

To broaden the impact of the monument, Browder organized an event in this past February called the Anarcha Lucy Betsey Day of Reckoning Conference. She held part of it in the same location where Sims performed his surgeries, which he called the “Negro Hospital.”

As she coordinated with the landlord of the property, Browder was told the building was for sale. A lightbulb immediately went off.

“I think I need this building,” she decided in that moment.

Browder pitched her vision to the landlord: “I would open this space to teach about the history of gynecology,” she told him, explaining that the first floor would be a museum and the second floor would offer primary-care services for women who need support and a teaching clinic for doulas, midwives and physicians to hone their skills.

She also hopes to host “medical students from around the country to learn in the space where these women were tortured, where they were enslaved with no autonomy and no anesthesia.”

To Browder’s disbelief and delight, he offered her the building — which he originally planned to sell for $100,000 — for just $35,000.

“Talk about a form of reparations and poetic justice,” Browder said. “I’m so very grateful.”

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She closed on the building in February, and since then, she has been designing the space and raising funds. She is hoping to raise $5.5 million. So far, “we’re at the million-dollar mark,” she said.

Browder’s work has drawn the attention of people across the country, including Veronica Pimentel, an OB/GYN based in Hartford, Conn., who was one of the speakers at the conference.

In 2020, amid the racial reckoning across the country after the murder in Minneapolis of George Floyd, Pimentel was exploring racism in the medical field.

“A Black woman is three to four times more likely to die of childbirth than her White counterparts,” Pimentel said, explaining that she became determined to understand why.

“I did a lot of research on my own and really taught myself more of what I should have learned during medical school and my residency,” said Pimentel, who came across many articles citing Sims’s work, including pieces that framed him in a heroic light.

“I had this visceral reaction to the atrocities,” she said. “I needed to speak up for those who didn’t get a voice.”

Pimentel started a petition, encouraging organizations in obstetrics and gynecology to honor the lives of Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, and to create an annual day of recognition.

In response, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released an anti-racist statement, which was signed by more than 20 other organizations.

Pimentel has been a supportive of Browder’s work and is looking forward to the upcoming museum and clinic, which is expected to open in 2024.

Browder has already produced a painting for the top floor — which inverts Thom’s original piece and features a naked Sims on the medical exam table, while Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey scrutinize him.

“It’s like grabbing history and redefining it,” Pimentel said.

Once the doors are open to her clinic and museum, Browder said, “I think that my life’s work will be complete.”