Say Anarcha: A Young Woman, a Devious Surgeon, and the Harrowing Birth of Modern Women's Health (Hardcover)
A compelling reckoning with the birth of women’s health that illuminates the sacrifices of a young woman who changed the world only to be forgotten by it—until now
For more than a century, Dr. J. Marion Sims was hailed as the “father of modern gynecology.” He founded a hospital in New York City and had a profitable career treating gentry and royalty in Europe, becoming one of the world’s first celebrity surgeons. Statues were built in his honor, but he wasn’t the hero he had made himself appear to be.
Sims’s greatest medical claim was the result of several years of experimental surgeries—without anesthesia—on a young enslaved woman known as Anarcha; his so-called cure for obstetric fistula forever altered the path of women’s health.
One medical text after another hailed Anarcha as the embodiment of the pivotal role that Sims played in the history of surgery. Decades later, a groundswell of women objecting to Sims’s legacy celebrated Anarcha as the “mother of gynecology.” Little was known about the woman herself. The written record would have us believe Anarcha disappeared; she did not.
Through tenacious research, J. C. Hallman has unearthed the first evidence of Anarcha’s life that did not come from Sims’s suspect reports. Hallman reveals that after helping to spark a patient-centered model of care that continues to improve women’s lives today, Anarcha lived on as a midwife, nurse, and “doctor woman.”
Say Anarcha excavates history, deconstructing the biographical smoke screen of a surgeon who has falsely been enshrined as a medical pioneer and bringing forth a heroic Black woman to her rightful place at the center of the creation story of modern women’s health care.
About the Author
J. C. Hallman is the author of five previous works of nonfiction and a book of short stories. His previous work on Anarcha has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, the Forum (of the African American Policy Forum), the Baffler, Montgomery Advertiser, and Urology. He had been a recipient of fellowships from the McKnight Foundation and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, in the general nonfiction category.
Los Angeles Times, "10 June books for your reading list"
"[A] truly astounding tale. . . . Say Anarcha is an important book and deserves to be widely read. . . . In the introduction, Hallman tells us that his goal is “to subvert every aspect of the fraudulent narrative” connected to Anarcha and to “excavate the life story of a young, enslaved woman who changed history, only to be forgotten by it.” He has accomplished that and more."
—New York Times Book Review
"When you ask for this one at the bookstore, you raise a cry for justice. . . . [A] new masterpiece. . . . Thanks to Hallman’s instant classic, [Anarcha]’s back in the skies and burning more brightly than ever."
"This compelling, extremely well-researched account of the life of an enslaved Black woman changes the historical narrative surrounding J. Marion Sims and engages us in a sober reckoning over the legacy of slavery, medical experimentation and gynecology. This extraordinary book forces us to recognize that "Anarcha" is a name we should say, remember and reflect upon as we still contend with a history of racial injustice that has left us vulnerable to continuing racial disparities in health care, injustice and unnecessary suffering."
—Bryan Stevenson, bestselling author of Just Mercy and founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative
"With painstaking historical research and loving persistence, J.C. Hallman has pieced together the fragments of the life of a woman who otherwise would have been less than a footnote. At the same time, Hallman has corrected the sanitized story of J. Marion Sims. This fully realized account of their entwined histories restores the humanity and dignity of Anarcha and other Black women whose sacrifices advanced and modernized medicine in America and the world."
—Linda Villarosa, author of Under the Skin: The Hidden Toll of Racism on American Lives and on the Health of Our Nation
"Although she was not counted as a person until 1869, Anarcha, the enslaved woman at the center of J.C. Hallman’s fascinating history Say Anarcha, proved herself to be a shimmering star from the heavens, a “comet” as one slave owner once put it, who navigated her own life on earth with intelligence, bravery, and mercy. The author rescues Anarcha from the shadow of J. Marion Sims and restores her to her rightful position of American hero. Hallman reminds us on every page that Anarcha’s place as the so-called “mother of gynecology” is as much a foundation of the United States as was the writing of the Constitution, or the marches of the Civil War, or the prophetic showers, from slavery times until freedom, of the heavenly bodies. Say Anarcha is a masterpiece of research and storytelling and should be made required reading everywhere. A massive accomplishment."
—Carolyn Ferrell, author of Dear Miss Metropolitan
"The Story of America is one built on the backs of Black women, who, despite brutal bondage, abuse, cruelty, and dehumanization, managed to save this country from itself. It is the story of women like Anarcha who were forced to sacrifice everything, even her life, so that millions of women would continue to live theirs. Say Anarcha is more than a glorious corrective to an unjust erasure of history. It restores an extraordinary life to a time that denied it and refines the very notion of the great American Hero."
—Marlon James, winner of the 2015 Booker Prize
"Rigorous and innovative. . . . Hallman successfully transforms Anarcha from historical object to subject, and shines a light on the contentious rise of medical ethics in the 19th century. It’s a must-read."
"A staggeringly researched book that serves as an indictment of Sims' hubris and an homage to Anarcha."