Say Anarcha

For readers of All That She Carried and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this dual biography reckons with the birth of women’s health and brings forth the forgotten Black woman who was at its center.

In 1846, a young surgeon, J. Marion Sims (“The Father of Gynecology”), began several years of experimental surgeries on a young enslaved woman known as Anarcha (“The Mother of Gynecology”). This series of procedures―performed without anesthesia and resulting in Anarcha’s so-called “cure”―forever altered the path of women’s health. Despite brutal practices and failed techniques, Sims proclaimed himself the curer of obstetric fistula, a horrific condition that had stymied the medical world for centuries. Parlaying supposed success to the founding of a new hospital in New York City―where he conducted additional dangerous experiments on Irish women―Sims went on to a profitable career treating gentry and royalty in Europe, becoming one of the world’s first celebrity surgeons. Medical text after medical text hailed Anarcha as a pivotal figure in the history of medicine, but little was recorded about the woman herself.

Through extensive research, author J. C. Hallman has unearthed the first evidence ever found of Anarcha’s life that did not come from Sims’s suspect reports. With incredible tenacity, Hallman traced Anarcha’s path from her beginnings on a Southern plantation to the backyard clinic where she was subjected to scores of painful surgical experiments, to her years after in Richmond and New York City, and to her final resting place in a lonely Virginia forest.

When Hallman first set out to find Anarcha, the world was just beginning to grapple with the history of white supremacy and its connection to racial health disparities exposed by COVID-19 and the disproportionate number of Black women who die while giving birth. In telling the stories of the “Mother” and “Father” of gynecology, Say Anarcha excavates the history of a heroic enslaved woman and deconstructs the biographical smokescreen of a surgeon whom history has falsely enshrined as a heroic pioneer. Kin in spirit to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Hallman’s dual biographical narratives tell a single story that corrects errors calcified in history and illuminates the sacrifice of a young woman who changed the world only to be forgotten by it―until now.


"Innovative and riveting...Hallman successfully transforms Anarcha from object to subject, and shines a light on the contentious rise of medical ethics in the 19th century. It's a must-read."

Publishers Weekly, STARRED review!

"Hallman assiduously tracked down every shred of documentation pertaining to Anarcha, but to fully align her life with Sims’, he created what he describes as a 'comprehensively researched work of speculative nonfiction.' That is, he imagines the details of Anarcha’s experiences as an historical novelist would, following her path from plantation to plantation, Richmond, New York, Philadelphia, and back to Alabama as she became a proficient herbalist, midwife, and nurse, as well as a wife and mother, all while she struggled with fistula and the cruelties of slavery....his righteous passion and galvanizing prose are commanding and affecting; the realities he reveals are harrowing, tragic, and grimly relevant."

Booklist, STARRED review!

"'Say Anarcha' is an important book and deserves to be widely read, especially by those in medicine.... 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."

The New York Times

"A staggeringly researched book that serves as an indictment of Sims’ hubris and an homage to Anarcha."


"Hallman’s determination to bring Anarcha out of obscurity restores her humanity and allows readers to reexamine the corrupt foundations of women’s health care."


"Hallman uncovers Anarcha’s life story, painting her as a multifaceted woman as well as a physician in her own right."

The Millions

"Truman Capote referred to works like Say Anarcha as nonfiction novels. Hallman uses that material and much more to write a broad if complicated narrative rich in detail about the times and world in which Sims lived."

New York Journal of Books

"Mr. Hallman's biography is phenomenal... haunting, poignant, and ultimately uplifting"

The New York Sun

“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, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative

"The Story of America is one built on the backs of Black women, who despite brutal bondage, abuse, cruelty, and dehumanisation 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

“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

"Since 2015, J. C. Hallman has been on a mission to ensure that Anarcha is not relegated to a historical footnote. He writes with a sharp eye and a distinctive voice as his painstaking research reveals a shameful time in our nation's history. This extraordinary book restores dignity to Anarcha and other Black women who endured and survived a series of harrowing ordeals to advance medicine both in our nation and abroad."


"Hallman’s research tells the story of Anarcha and her contributions to the medical field, and she gets a voice outside of Sims’ representations of her. This is a new release in 2023 that is worth every word. "

Audiobook Addicts

"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."

The Brooklyn Rail