For more than a century, Dr. James Marion Sims was known as the father of American Gynecology, helping found the American Gynecological Association and developing new tools in surgery and women's reproductive health. But behind that is a disturbing history. The South Carolina physician conducted surgical research on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. The health advocacy group The Resilient Sisterhood Project has taken a leading role in raising awareness about the notorious medical experiments and has teamed up with the Hutchins Center at Harvard for an exhibit called " Call and Response: A Narrative of Reverence to our Foremothers and Gynecology." Three people involved joined GBH’s Morning Edition hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to discuss it: Lilly Marcelin, the founder and executive director of the Resilient Sisterhood Project; Curator Dell Hamilton of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research; and the artist Jules Arthur. This transcript has been lightly edited.

Jeremy Siegel: Lilly, before we get into the show and what people can expect from the exhibit, tell us a little bit about Dr. Sims and your work to change the way we look at the history surrounding him in gynecology.

Lilly Marcelin: Thank you for inviting us. Dr. Sims is known and is quite famous for the experiments that he conducted on these enslaved ancestors. Dr. Sims was a small plantation physician back in Montgomery in the 1840s. He spent about three years experimenting on Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy. These are the three ancestors that he named. But he also talked about seven to nine other enslaved women that he kept in a makeshift hospital behind his house. So he has been long lauded for being recognized as the father of modern gynecology. Yet we know very little about the lives of Lucy, Betsy, and Anarcha. I think it's important that we see their names. I think it is important that we talk about what they endured. I think it's important that we know that we talk about the cruel and inhumane and reckless experiments that Dr. Sims conducted on these women.

So this exhibition is really to uplift, to remember, to dignify the lives of these ancestors. And it is also important that people understand that even though we keep saying women, I'm saying women, these were young girls. They were adolescents. Anarcha, on whom Dr. Sims operated for 30 years, was only 17 years old, and Lucy was 18. These three young women were between the ages of 17 to 19. So we have to remember that they were young girls because we know that in this country many people tend to adultify — there is a tendency of the adult-ification of little girls, little Black girls. So I want people to remember that these [were] practically children.

Paris Alston: And Jules, tell us tell us about the works in this exhibit and the intention behind them.

Jules Arthur: Well, thanks for having me again. As a visual artist, I love lending my gifts and talents to just causes, to portray certain atrocities that have happened throughout history. So being introduced to this project through Lilly, it's quite remarkable the journey that we've been on. The Resilient Sisterhood Project has commissioned me to do six separate works that speak about this narrative that we're talking about, the case of Dr. Marion Sims and Anarcha, Lucy and Betsy. So again, it's six works that talk about a whole host of cruelties within this narrative. So as an artist, it is my duty to take in and hear what Lilly was talking about these atrocities and how do you transfer that to a visual language responsibly. I also think there's a sense of poetry that needs to be added to it, not just a linear thought or, you know, flat-footed approach as to how do you tell this story with dignity and give these women eloquence. That was a an important part of my process.

Siegel: And Dell, as curator of this exhibit, you're both reclaiming this history, and also bringing it into the present. Tell us about how in putting this together, you're connecting past and present.

Dell Hamilton: That is a really great question. When Lilly approached us to work on this project at the time, I knew very little about J. Marion Sims. I knew about sort of the protest happening in 2018 to remove the statue in New York City, but I did not know much of the history. And as I was doing the history and sort of looking through the work of Deirdre Cooper Owens, who wrote a book called "Medical Bondage" and then Harriet A. Washington who wrote a book called "Medical Apartheid." As I did the research, I learned of other artists who were interrogating this history. So one of those artists in particular whose work I'm really taken with is an artist named KING COBRA in the contemporary art world. She was known as Doreen Garner. But what she does in her live performance, we have a video recording of it from 2017 — she actually does a mold of J. Marion Sims' statue, and then she performs surgery on him live in front of an audience. She essentially turns the tables on him. And so that's one way we sort of bring the work into the present. There's also the work of Michelle Browder, who's well known in the Montgomery, Alabama, area for being an organizer and an entrepreneur of civil rights tours. But she's also an artist. She first learned of this history when she was an art student in Atlanta, and then finally moved to Montgomery, she put together a beautiful public art piece that is in Montgomery, Alabama, and it honors Lucy, Betsy and Anarcha.

And so while we know there are these three names, there were, as Lilly said, more than just these three women. There are unnamed Black women. What we know is almost about 12 to 13. But he also, too, was operating on indigent Irish immigrant women as well. And so around this period of time, he's centering his own sort of legacy. But these are women who also contributed to this history and sort of the birth of gynecology. And so as I'm thinking about the present, I'm very much thinking about the overturning of Roe v. Wade. I'm thinking about the blocking of gender affirming care for trans youth. I'm thinking about just the equitable health outcomes. And so I want visitors to the show, as they look at Jules's work and then all the other artists in the show, to be thinking about how racism and gender bias and class differences are baked into our health systems. And I want medical students and students of history to come to the show. I want teachers to put it on their syllabi. So that's what I'm thinking about in the present. Really trying to get policymakers, politicians, organizers to help us transform this systems.