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Honoring Black Female Slaves Experimented on by Dr. Marion Sims

by Doug Wojcieszak
This week’s guest columnist is Doug Wojcieszak, MA, MS, Founder and President of Sorry Works!, a 501c3 patient safety organization that teaches disclosure, transparency, and apology to healthcare, insurance and legal professionals.
To submit a guest column, please email it to our Marketing Coordinator, Nicole Mailhoit at [email protected]

Every so often, People Magazine has something worth reading. Full disclosure: It’s not my subscription…belongs to the wife.

On a recent cold, rainy Saturday afternoon, I had nothing to read with my turkey sandwich (I had devoured The Wall Street Journal weekend edition over breakfast). The December 5, 2022 edition of People Magazine was sitting within reach, Shaq’s smiling mug on the cover beckoning me to flip the pages. I am old enough to remember Shaq’s college playing days at LSU, and the People story provided a candid look at his life.  His first marriage ended in divorce due to self-admitted infidelity, he missed out on rearing his kids, Shaq admitting to People he was a “d— head” at that point in his life, but he learned and improved and his life is in a much better place. Interesting article about a cultural icon. Time well spent.

I ventured further in the magazine — past all the Tabloid photos and earth shaking updates on Hollywood starlets — and found another article entitled “These Women Deserve Dignity,” which highlighted the work of African American artist Michelle Browder.  Ms. Browder recently completed a series of sculptures honoring the Black female slaves experimented on by Dr. Marion Sims, the so-called father of Gynecology. Dr. Sims conducted various anatomical and surgical experiments on unanesthetized Black female slaves.  Yet, Sims was/is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg: America’s medical community experimented on Black people from slavery through the early 1980’s.  This sad and tragic history is a large part of the reason some Black people do not trust doctors, or vaccines. Browder’s statutes make a visual statement about the well-founded fears felt by many Black Americans.  “Medical Apartheid” written by Harriet Washington chronicles all the sins of the medical community against the Black community from the Antebellum South to when I was in high school.  Washington’s tome and Browder’s statues provide authentic context for people struggling to understand these issues in our over-heated culture. Indeed, there are too many slogans, buzz words, and tweets bandied about by people on both the left and right. The word racism is too freely thrown around, and too often in a way that alienates white people and others who be inclined to help. Browder, Washington and their contemporaries say, “Here, let me actually show you where the hurt and mistrust are and hopefully we can find a way forward.”  They are thoughtful, not bombastic.

I believe apology is part of that pathway going forward for African Americans and the American medical community, and shared these feelings with the BMJ Medical Ethics Blog.  We need to teach this history, show appropriate empathy, and vow to never let it happen again. Harriet Washington also expressed that candor and transparency are needed for the Black community to fully take advantage of life extending and life-saving technologies offered by modern healthcare. I shared more thoughts on this topic in a CME-accredited online course entitled “Cultural Diversity, African Americans, and Medicine” developed with Dr. Victor Waters, an African American physician-lawyer who is currently the CMO of Dignity Health Arizona Central and West Valley Market.

Have a good weekend, and stay safe as you scurry around preparing for the upcoming holidays.


– Doug

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