A statue of the surgeon J. Marion Sims was removed from its pedestal bordering New York City’s Central Park on Tuesday, after calls for its removal peaked in the summer of 2017. The city’s Public Design Commission voted Monday to remove the Sims statue, and on Tuesday the statue was taken down; the city plans to move it to the cemetery where Sims is buried.
In the last year or so, during a period of dialogue about what it means to continue to maintain monuments to figures whose lives no longer seem praiseworthy, Confederate monuments have been removed from many cities, and universities have begun to come to grips with their own and their benefactors’ connections to slavery. And, though the statue of Sims may have little to do with the Civil War on its face, its removal was nonetheless the latest part of that story.
With Sims, the controversy is not about the merits of his medical achievements, but how he accomplished them. Though Sims founded New York’s first women’s hospital and innovated new surgical techniques, his success came at the cost of unethical medical treatment of enslaved women in the antebellum era.
In the 1840s, to master the technique that earned him the title of “father of modern gynecology” — a cure for vesicovaginal fistula, which closed dangerous openings between the bladder and vagina, often caused by giving birth — he practiced on enslaved women whom he purchased. During the incredibly painful process, they were deprived of anesthesia, according to a recent NPR interview with Vanessa Northington Gamble, a physician and medical historian at George Washington University. Sometimes other physicians were invited to watch him in action.
His experiments were part of a longer history of doctors experimenting on African Americans and Native Americans to test out treatments that could benefit white people, Harriet A. Washington, the author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, told TIME recently.
Even after slavery was abolished, that didn’t mean African Americans received the same treatment as white patients. Washington says there was a widespread belief that such experiments on patients from marginalized communities could be justified as payback of sorts, since those individuals often couldn’t afford to pay full-price for all of their medical care.
Sims’ dubious legacy has received a new round of scrutiny during the national conversation about Confederate statues, and also since the release a year ago of the HBO film adaptation of Rebecca Skloot’s best-selling book about Henrietta Lacks, a 20th-century African-American woman whose cells were used for medical research without her consent.
But questions about whether it was appropriate to celebrate his life are longstanding. Well before 21st century consciousness-raising efforts, TIME noted some of the problems with the Sims statue in 1959, on the occasion of the publication of the book Obstetric and Gynecologic Milestones by the gynecologist Harold Speert, when observers were reminded of the irony of forgetting the women whose bodies made medical advances possible for men such as Sims.
“Rarely are the female subjects of gynecology’s heroes honored,” the magazine’s coverage of the book read. “Three who suffered, willy-nilly, in the cause of surgical progress were the slaves Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy, on whom the flamboyant South Carolinian James Marion Sims (1813-83) operated repeatedly to perfect a method of closing openings (the result of childbirth injury) between the bladder and vagina—then one of the most distressing complaints that woman was heir to. Dr. Sims is honored with a statue in Manhattan’s Central Park, but the slaves are not even named in Dr. Speert’s index.”
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