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J.C. Hallman discusses 'Say Anarcha,' a book about experiments on enslaved women


You might have seen the statue in New York's Central Park or even that famous illustration in one textbook or another - a white man, one or both arms crossing his chest in that classic pose, celebrating the man known as the father of modern gynecology. J. Marion Sims was a surgeon who, beginning in the 1840s, began developing surgical instruments and techniques that helped women survive difficult conditions related to childbirth, especially fistulas.

But what you might not have noticed in the picture or even known existed, were the enslaved Black women on whom Sims experimented, often without anesthesia. City removed that statue in 2018, but now writer J.C. Hallman has gone a step further and restored the women in the picture to their rightful place at the center of the story, especially one woman, Anarcha. Hallman calls her one of the mothers of modern gynecology. And he's here with us now to tell us more about his new book, "Say Anarcha." J.C. Hallman, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JC HALLMAN: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Your book is titled "Say Anarcha." And I assume that that's a reference to the rallying cry that we have heard in recent years of demonstrators who want us to acknowledge people who have been unacknowledged so far. Tell us what you have learned about her.

HALLMAN: So Anarcha is a central figure in the creation story of modern women's health. And she and two other women, Lucy and Betsy, and approximately seven others were the experimental subjects of J. Marion Sims. And for a long time, all that anybody knew about Anarcha, who was the most consequential of these experimental subjects, came from Sims himself. He was a very, very untrustworthy source. And so when I heard about that, I thought, well, can she be found? I was able to find out a lot more about this young woman who made this very significant contribution to the history of medicine, but then was largely forgotten by history.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit more about why you say she was so consequential to these techniques and to the development of patient-centered medicine.

HALLMAN: What's happening today in Africa, where this condition that Anarcha and Lucy and Betsey and the others suffered from, obstetric fistula, this is still a crisis in the developing world. What happens when you're a fistula sufferer is that you are living with women who have a similar condition. And you're learning to care for one another.

And this idea traces all the way back to these original experiments that happened in Montgomery, Ala. Sims had gathered these women together, had them living with one another in order to experiment on them. And what happened is that a kind of patient-centered model of care was pioneered. And that is the thing that is changing lives today in Africa. And so there is a clinical advance that came out of the Alabama fistula experiments, but it owes nothing to Sims.

MARTIN: I'm just curious about how you went about capturing the lives of women who couldn't write their own stories. How did you go about finding them?

HALLMAN: Because Anarcha was a kind of void, there really had to be a different kind of history that needed to be created in order to tell her story. And so in order to complete that portrait of her, I called on the "Slave Narratives" of the Federal Writers' Project, which was part of the Works Progress Administration of FDR. And these are thousands - the voices of thousands of formerly enslaved persons that offer just an absolute treasure trove of details. So I called on those materials to give a sense of breath and life to Anarcha's story.

MARTIN: One of the things that's interesting about your book is it's kind of a - I don't know what - say, a dual biography. You go on this journey to find Anarcha and the other women. But then you also go back and take a new look at J. Marion Sims. And, in fact, the subtitle of your book is "A Young Woman, A Devious Surgeon, And The Harrowing Birth Of Modern Women's Health." You make it very clear that you do not hold him in high regard.

HALLMAN: I mean, I think he's a monster. I mean, he really sort of molded himself in the vein of P.T. Barnum. And so he was primarily a self-aggrandizer. And what I wanted to do was to put the reader into his world, into his mindset, so that his true motives, his white supremacist mindset, his greed would become apparent.

MARTIN: Did anybody attack the ethics of this, of experimenting on these women without their consent and without even any effort to mitigate the pain?

HALLMAN: It was understood that Sims was leaping to human trials much more quickly than other doctors at the time were. I remember there was one doctor in England who talked about how they were giving chloroform to pigs when they were performing experiments on pigs. And it was - and he was saying that in order to criticize Sims for not using anesthesia on enslaved women.

MARTIN: Well, you know, one of the things I found fascinating about your book, though, is that he experimented on these women in the 1840s and 1850s Alabama - OK? - when these women had no rights. But even despite that, you say that even at the time, there were people who found his behavior abhorrent. Could you say a little bit about that?

HALLMAN: Sims had many, many champions during his lifetime, but he also had his detractors. And, in fact, this story has become sort of controversial over the last few years. And some people have been concerned that there is a projection of modern values into the past and the reevaluation of Sims' legacy. And that's just not the case, because what that forensic deep dive into his career reveals is that Sims' greatest critics were the people who knew him best.

MARTIN: What drew you to this story? You've written about a lot of things over the course of your career. Why this?

HALLMAN: To my mind, all writers of good conscience are on the lookout for the kind of work that can make the world a better place in some way. And I think that is what resonated with me. I saw that this search hadn't been undertaken. I had the resources. I had the right skill set for that. I set out to do it. And the amazing thing was, is that finding that first evidence of Anarcha wasn't that hard. Somebody just had to look.

MARTIN: That's J.C. Hallman. His new book is "Say Anarcha: A Young Woman, A Devious Surgeon, And the Harrowing Birth Of Modern Women's Health." J.C. Hallman, thanks so much for talking with us.

HALLMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GREEN TRIO'S "THE SUMMER RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.