An engraving of a table with a tilted couchioned top and raised props for a woman's ankles.

What History Reveals: Slavery and the Development of U.S. Gynecology

Deirdre Cooper Owens, PhD will speak on Thursday, February 10, 2022 at 2:00 PM ET. This program will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Dr. Cooper Owens is the Charles and Linda Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine & Director of the Humanities in Medicine Program, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Circulating Now interviewed her about her research and upcoming talk.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like? 

Informal portrait of a Black woman on an outdoor staircase.
Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communication

Deirdre Cooper Owens: I am originally from from South Carolina and the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C. I am a historian of medicine and professor, an author, public speaker, and reproductive justice advocate. I am also an administrator of two programs (I am the Director of Humanities in Medicine at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and also, serve as the Director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia). I teach, give a lot of public talks about the history of race/racism, medicine, and gynecology’s origins. And in between, I write for popular audiences via newspaper articles.

CN: How did you first become interested in the History of Medicine?

Pinted title page of a book with a library stamp.
Title page of On the Treatment of Vesico-Vaginal Fistula by J. Marion Sims, 1853
National Library of Medicine #67130240R

DCO: I took a seminar class about revolutions in science. I had very little interest in the steam engine which we seemed to discuss ad nauseum. On my own, I read a book, Gender Talk, co-authored by Johnnetta B. Cole and Beverly Guy Sheftall that mentioned Dr. James Marion Sims and the experimental surgical work he performed on enslaved women. As a Southerner, a Black woman, and someone who attended two HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), I was really shocked to learn this history at such a late stage in my academic career, my 3rd year in my PhD program. I called my mother, who was then teaching science in a DC public school, and she was as fascinated by the topic as I was. I resolved to learn as much as I could about Sims, the enslaved women, and the history of American medicine’s relationship to the institution of slavery.

CN: Tell us a little about your upcoming talk, “What History Reveals: Slavery and the Development of U.S. Gynecology,” what drew your attention specifically to Gynecology?

An engraving of a table with a tilted cushioned top and raised props for a woman's ankles.
Speculum Table, 1839
National Library of Medicine #101436752

DCO: In this talk I share an often-marginalized history of medicine that tends to be largely known only by historians of medicine and some medical doctors. Instead of placing enslaved patients at the margins of the historical medical narrative, I center them. I am clear about putting the past in conversation with the present, especially when this country is in the midst of a devastating Black maternal/birthing crisis.

CN: What kinds of primary sources have you found most useful in your research and where do you find them?

DCO: Nineteenth century medical journal articles, ledgers, physician’s notes and court cases were extremely useful for me. I began my research in 2005/6 using the digital archives and visiting libraries and archives.

CN: In researching this subject, were you drawn to any particular individual’s story?

DCO: I was especially drawn to the story of Nanny, an enslaved woman who loses her life at the hands of doctors who experimented on her. It is a depressing story for sure but provides some insights about how Black people cared for and thought of their most vulnerable members. I knew in the end how much her community members loved her and wanted her story to be told accurately.

Watch on YouTube

Deirdre Cooper Owens’s presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All talks are li globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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