SciFri Extra: Charly Evon Simpson On ‘Behind The Sheet’

In this extended interview, playwright Charly Evon Simpson discusses the enslaved women whose bodies paved the way for modern gynecology.

an intense moment with two women of color on the stage. one sits in the foreground looking off into the distance, while the other stands in the background with her hands over her stomach
Credit: Jeremy Daniel

The 19th-century physician J. Marion Sims may have gone down in history as the “father of modern gynecology,” but Sims’ fistula cure was the result of experimental surgeries, pre-Emancipation, on at least 11 enslaved black women. Only three of those names have been remembered—Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. A new play, Behind The Sheet, imagines their life—not just the pain, but the friendships they might have formed to support each other through surgery after surgery.

logo that says 'best of 2019'In this extended conversation, Science Friday producer Christie Taylor talks to playwright Charly Evon Simpson about the process of inventing a story for these women despite the limited documentation of their lives, the controversy around a J. Marion Sims statue in New York City, and Sims’ legacy in black women’s maternal health outcomes today.

Behind The Sheet was funded in part by The Sloan Foundation, which is also a funder of Science Friday.

Related Segment

Peering ‘Behind The Sheet’ Of Gynecology’s Darker History

Further Reading

  • Read an essay by Rich Kelley about the scientific an historical context of Behind The Sheet.
  • Listen to Undiscovered’s episode covering Sims’ research and how people of color are still underrepresented in medical research.
  • Read an article reported by Vox on the removal of a statue of Sims in New York in April 2018.

Meet the Writer

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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