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LIDC Research Seminar: Are we ready to de-colonise medicine?

04/12/2020 @ 1:00 pm - 2:15 pm

Many of us have heard of Josef Mengele, the notorious World War II German SS officer and physician, known as the ‘Angel of Death’ because of the brutal medical experiments he performed on Jewish people in Auschwitz without anaesthetic. Mengele managed to escape justice, living out his days in South America until his death in 1979.

But Mengele was not the first to conduct barbaric experiments on live human ‘subjects.’ More often than not, we do not know the names of those who were subjected to such savage treatment in the name of medical science. Yet the names of their tormentors have often been lauded. American Marion James Sims is one such. Sims carried out brutal experiments on young enslaved women, gifted to him for this purpose. He used no anaesthetic, performing some 30 brutal experiments on 17-year-old Anarcha. Sims is still praised as ‘the father of gynaecology.’ Statues of him still stand. The “Sims position” is recommended for pregnant women and  the ”Sims speculum” is used on every labour ward in UK state hospitals. Yet how many know the names of his ‘subjects,’ Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey?

Heidi Downes, a midwife at LIDC member institution Queen Mary, University of London, aims to change that.

Decolonising the medical education system

On 4 December, we are honoured to have Heidi speaking at our research webinar. We’ll hear about her petition calling for a statue or plaque of Anarcha and the women who suffered alongside her to be erected at the Royal College of Gynaecology in London, which has garnered over 9,500 signatures. This work is important because of the racial disparities that still exist in healthcare provision. Heidi cites a report from 2018, which reveals that in the UK, Black women were almost five times more likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth related causes. Asian women were nearly twice as likely to die. According to, 300,000 women and 2.6 million newborns die from preventable causes every year, with 99 per cent of these deaths occurring in the global south.

In the context of debates around ‘decolonising’ global health, we invite you to join us to hear about Heidi Downes campaign and learn what we can do to expose the hidden influence of racism in health care today.

Main photo is a painting by Robert Thom, the only known representation of Lucy, Anarcha and Betsey. Pearson Museum, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine


Heidi Downes is a midwife at the Antenatal Screening Service of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine at Queen Mary’s University. She previously worked in a number of London NHS hospitals in a wide range of clinical roles. Heidi embarked on her work with the campaign to honour the enslaved young Black ‘Forgotten Women of Gynaecology’ last year, when she learned  their story from Amali Lokugamage, an obstetrician, gynaecologist and honorary associate professor at UCL. The distressing stories of the suffering they endured at the hands of the ‘father of  gynaecology,’ Dr Marion Sims, and her shock at learning that their pain and sacrifice was left out of history books while Simms, who forcefully and repeatedly operated on them with no analgesia has been repeatedly praised, even having a statue erected in his honour, motivated her to ensure the names of his victims, Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey,  are known and respected by every midwife, nurse and doctor and indeed all those who have benefited from the pain they endured.  As a midwife, Heidi feels an overwhelming sense of duty to fight for justice for these young women. She believes that raising awareness of these women is an essential part of righting this wrong.



We are delighted to announce that Neomi Bennett BEM will be joining us tomorrow. Neomi is a multi award-winning nurse, creator of the neo-slip stocking. You may have heard of Neomi because she is currently suing the Metropolitan Police following an incident where she was racially profiled and arrested. She has recently been active in drawing attention to current racial disparities in the British healthcare system through her work with Neomi is of course a VIP guest and as such will be invited to speak before we open the floor for general discussion.

Please remember that registration for this event is mandatory. You can register here



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