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Alabama artist works to correct historical narrative around beginnings of gynecology


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: The history of gynecology as a medical specialty has deep roots in the American South, but that legacy is as complicated as the history of the South itself.

Correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro has our report from Alabama's capital, Montgomery.

It is part of Fred's series Agents For Change and our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Michelle Browder, Artist: Welcome to more than a tour.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: For some years, Michelle Browder has conducted trolley tours of Montgomery.

Michelle Browder: This is her apartment. So I would invite you to get out.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: From Rosa Parks' home to the bus depot that is now the Freedom Rides Museum.

Michelle Browder: This is where they were beaten and bludgeoned right here.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Alabama's capital is a living history museum of the civil rights era, with so many iconic events, people, and places. But, for Browder, artist by training, activist by leaning, there is one chapter of an earlier history that she is working to rewrite.

It has manifested in a monument on the capitol grounds to James Marion Sims. He was a physician who practiced here in the 1840s, developing tools for pelvic exams and a technique to suture vaginal tears called fistulas.

To Michelle Browder, that is only half the story.

There is nothing on the monument now that says anything about the women that he worked on.

Michelle Browder: Oh, absolutely not, nothing of these 11 enslaved girls of African dissent that were tortured, mutilated without anesthesia, nothing that talks about what they contributed, forcibly, of course,

Fred de Sam Lazaro: No mention of them either in a well-known paintings immortalizing Sims as the father of modern gynecology.

Michelle Browder first saw it as an art student three decades ago.

Michelle Browder: I was triggered.

From there, I promised myself that, one day, I will change that narrative.

Got the welding station.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: A promise renewed years later when she moved to Montgomery and discovered the statue at the capitol.

Michelle Browder: I was horrified. I still am. If he's the father of gynecology, the father of modern gynecology, then they are the mothers?

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Browder decided she'd do something about it. Relying heavily on Sims' own notes, she focused on the only three women actually named in his writings.

That is a lot of welding and sculpting. How many people doing this?

Michelle Browder: Fifteen volunteers.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Today, about a mile from the Sims monument are soaring wrought iron tributes to the women she calls the mothers of gynecology, Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy.

Michelle Browder: They didn't have autonomy, so it just makes sense for them not to have arms and feet.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: The young woman endured months of trial and error as Sims honed his technique to repair their fistulas. The humiliating vaginal injury usually caused by obstructed labor renders women incontinent and unable to bear children.

Michelle Browder: If you see around her legs there, that wire represents the silk suture, sutures that he used to basically torture them.

And then of course, Betsey, her crown is made up of the speculum.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: And tell us the significance of the flower and its place.

Michelle Browder: Yes. So, throughout all of the trauma, something came out of it that's been useful for women suffering from this condition.

Lauren Marcelle, Artist: The first time that I ever viewed the monument, I cried. And I didn't know exactly why.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Lauren Marcelle and Alana Taylor are local artists and recent transplants to Montgomery. They were on the day's tour.

Alana Taylor, Artist: just seeing that work erected in such a way as a healing device was beautiful.

Lauren Marcelle: The only thing that differentiates us from these women is time.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: There was no such thing as informed consent from patients or subjects in experimental medical trials in Marion Sims' day. The only consent that mattered had to come from slaveholders, who had a keen economic interest in the health of their workers and, because these were young women, a particular interest in their reproductive health, especially so after the transatlantic slave trade was abolished.

Michelle Browder: If it's outlawed in 1808, that we cannot go back and traffic folks from Africa, then where are we getting these people? From the neighborhood? Breeding plantations. Breeding.

Deirdre Cooper Owens, University of Nebraska-Lincoln: Black women's -- their wombs are the engines that maintained the institution of slavery.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Deirdre Cooper Owens is a medical historian and author.

As for anesthesia, she says, it was not commonly used in Sims' day. But his reason for avoiding it rested on a widely held stereotype, that Black people do not feel pain, something contradicted, she says, in his own work.

Deirdre Cooper Owens: I call it racial cognitive dissonance. He holds on to the ideologies or sets of beliefs that are swirling in the 19th century, that Black people are somehow different than white people biologically.

But he will write: This patient lost sense of herself and struggled violently as we had to restrain her during surgery.

Why would you need to restrain a Black patient who is insensible to pain?

Dr. LaToya Clark, Jackson Hospital: And you look at today, but even with all the advancements that we have, that African American women tend to have higher mortality and morbidity, and I think it's just a trickle down from the -- from the troubles that our ancestors had to endure.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: LaToya Clark, a Montgomery obstetrician-gynecologist, says anti-Black stereotypes have endured through the years. Even today, she notes, studies find many providers believe African Americans feel less pain, that their complaints are exaggerated.

The flip side, she says, is deep distrust of the health care system.

Do you have patients who actively want to see you because they think you're more culturally competent, because they think that you would better understand their predicament?

Dr. LaToya Clark: Yes, I have had numerous patients I'd say that: I have seen a man gynecologist all my life, and now I want to see a female gynecologist, or I wanted to come to an Afro-American gynecologist.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: For Michelle Browder, the next step in reframing Sims' legacy is quite literally, a mural based on that fateful painting, this time with Sims on the operating table.

It will be installed in a new Mothers of Gynecology Center she's opening in a downtown Montgomery building that's brimming with history and irony.

Michelle Browder: This is the site of the Negro women's hospital.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: The very sited, it turns out, where J. Marion Sims experimented on his enslaved patients. When they weren't on the table, she says, these women became skilled surgical attendants, nursing women through their ordeals.

And tell us your grand plan for this space now.

Michelle Browder: Prenatal care for women, upstairs, a teaching clinic, with the hopes of teaching empathy, dignity and respect.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Browder says she's faced occasional pushback in this deep red state, where Sims is revered for work that was indeed groundbreaking.

Michelle Browder: I have had some doctors say that I'm actually trying to stain this man's reputation who's actually done something good, he was a man of his time.

In any case, whether or not he was a man of his time, then his time was barbaric, and, therefore, he was barbaric. So let's start there, and then seek out ways to help and repair what is broken.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: And then there have been moments of grace, notably after she explained her plans for the new center to the white owners of the building.

Michelle Browder: She says: "Oh, Michelle," just little Ms. Gone With the Wind.

She was like: "We're just so proud of you. And if you're going to do all of that, we're going to let you have that building for $35,000."

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Not what you expected.

Michelle Browder: Just don't judge the book by the cover.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: The building is appraised at $250,000, she says.

A ribbon-cutting for the Mothers of Gynecology Health and Wellness Museum and Clinic is scheduled this coming Mother's Day.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Fred de Sam Lazaro in Montgomery, Alabama.

Geoff Bennett: Fred's reporting is supported in partnership with the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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