The Mothers of Gynecology, Granny Eiland, and the Radical Unlicensed Healers  Part I

Mothers of Gynecology Monument

Written by: Dr. Edith Langford

Author, Ethnographic Researcher & Clinician, Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC, LMHC), and Addiction Specialist (CASAC, ADC) with four decades of experience. After a lifetime of experiencing ongoing medical mistreatment, she is working on a memoir about medical racism in our healthcare system

In February 2022, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Stephanie Mitchell at The Mothers of Gynecology Conference in Montgomery Alabama. Dr. Mitchell is the first Black midwife to be licensed in Alabama since 1976. This significant milestone occurred nearly a century after Granny Eiland's dedicated work in delivering babies. Her mission is to establish The Birth Sanctuary, the first Black birthing center in Alabama. She and I spoke of the struggle of all Black midwives over the past nearly 50 years. 

Dr. Mitchell reports, ” I was the first Black midwife licensed since the illegalization’s in 1976. My license number is 22. The first 21 were White because they could not find the black midwives.” Apparently, in the entire state of Alabama, none of the multitude of existing midwives met the licensing standard. 

The "Mothers of Gynecology" are a group of enslaved Black women in the 19th century who were subjected to medical experiments and procedures without their consent or proper anesthesia. Their experiences were integral to the development of modern gynecology, but their contributions were largely overlooked and their identities often unknown. 

One prominent figure associated with the Mothers of Gynecology is Dr. James Marion Sims, a physician at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia who performed experiments on enslaved women. Sims is considered the "father of modern gynecology" for his advancements in surgical techniques and the treatment of various gynecological conditions. However, his achievements came at the expense of the enslaved women he experimented on, known by their first names: Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy, among others. 

These women endured numerous painful and invasive procedures, including surgeries to address conditions like vesicovaginal fistula. They did not have the agency to consent to these procedures, and the lack of anesthesia during their treatments added to their suffering. 

The contribution of the Mothers of Gynecology was significant in advancing medical knowledge and practices, but it is crucial to recognize the unethical circumstances under which these advancements were made. Efforts have been made to shed light on their stories and honor their memory, highlighting the importance of informed consent, ethical medical practices, and the recognition of marginalized voices in the history of medicine. 

The Mothers of Gynecology Conference was founded by activist and artist, Michelle Browder who created a magnificent 14-foot metal sculpture titled, “The Mothers of Gynecology” that honors Anarcha, Lucie and Betsey, three of the women purchased by Dr. J. Marion Sims. 

He used these women as human guinea pigs to discover new surgical methods, instruments, and techniques still used today. He never gave them anesthesia for these surgeries. They were not thought to have human feelings and sensations. However, he did purposely addict them to opium to be used between surgery to keep them beholden to him and not run away. 

We gathered at the conference to set the record straight. Dr. Marion Sims did not deserve to be revered as “The Father of Gynecology.” 

That day of the conference in Montgomery we met to bestow the honor to the true Mothers of Gynecology. We gathered – healers, mothers, naturalists, medical, mental, and community health practitioners. We gathered around a magnificent sculpture of those three women who represented many more whose names are lost. 

We gathered around food. We chatted and laughed and cried. 

For three days we called their names, we marched and sang the old Negro spiritual and civil rights war song, “I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around. I am gonna keep on a-talking, keep on a-marching, marching up to freedom land.” We embodied their spirits. I felt Granny Eiland with us.

Continued in Part II

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