J. Marion Sims is known as the “father” of modern gynecology, and also as a monster. On Tuesday, the city of New York took down a statue honoring Sims in Central Park and will move it to his grave, after a city commission convened by Mayor Bill de Blasio decided that the founder of the nation’s first women’s hospital was no longer worthy of uncritical celebration.
The debate over the Sims statue echoes the debate over Confederate monuments, with supporters of keeping the statue accusing those of wanting to remove it of attempting to erase history. Sims developed a groundbreaking series of treatments for a condition known as vesicovaginal fistula, “an abnormal opening between the bladder and the vagina” that causes incontinence, through a series of agonizing experiments on slave women, performed without anesthesia. Those experiments formed the basis of medical breakthroughs that would later be deployed for the benefit of wealthier, whiter clients in more voluntary settings. Sims’s medical advances reflect how white Americans benefited from the slave system as a whole: Just as profits from slavery fueled American industrialization, so modern gynecology was birthed by the anguish of black women treated as chattel. And just as the critical role of slavery as a cornerstone of American capitalism has been neglected until recently, Sims’s reliance on human experimentation has only become controversial in the past few decades.
Sims, who founded the country’s first women’s hospital in New York in 1855, developed his method of treating vesicovaginal fistula over three years of experimental surgeries, operating on 11 slave women in Alabama who suffered from the condition, from 1846 to 1849, sometimes in front of observers to whom he wished to demonstrate his methods. The condition was considered incurable at the time. “I made this proposition to the owners of the negroes,” Sims wrote in his autobiography, The Story of My Life. “If you will give me Anarcha and Betsey for experiment, I agree to perform no experiment or operation on either of them to endanger their lives, and will not charge a cent for keeping them, but you must pay their taxes and clothe them.”
Sparing them pain was not a part of the agreement. “Lucy’s agony was extreme,” Sims wrote of one patient, from whom he had to remove a sponge after failing to create a proper catheter to prevent her urine from seeping into her vagina. “It was a very stupid thing for me to do … she was much prostrated, and I thought she was going to die.” Lucy did recover after Sims removed the sponge, and the operation he performed on her, Sims wrote, was the basis of more successful surgeries. Sims’s progress came from excruciating repetition of trial and error. “His first operation, on a female slave, was unsuccessful,” The New York Times noted in an 1894 article on the dedication of statue, which was spearheaded and financed by the contributions of fellow surgeons. “He operated again and again on the same subject, and finally, in his thirtieth trial, he was successful.”
“James Marion Sims is an important figure in the history of experimentation with African Americans because he so well embodies the dual face of American medicine to which racial health disparities owe so much,” Harriet A. Washington wrote in Medical Apartheid. “Slaves did not have to be recruited, persuaded, and cajoled to endure pain and indignity; they could not refuse.”
In his autobiography, Sims emphasized his desire to help his enslaved subjects, and insisted that they voluntarily agreed to be operated on—whatever that could mean for the enslaved. But he also must have known, despite his conviction that blacks were inferior, that his use of human experimentation on enslaved people was immoral.
“In Alabama, Sims’s vigorous defense of the slavery system had been liberally seasoned with ‘nigger,’” Washington wrote. “However, once up north, he hid the ethnicity of his subjects, portraying them as white in the illustrations that accompanied his accounts of the surgery.” Contrary to the defense that Sims was merely a man of his time, Washington notes, he had contemporary critics—physicians white and black—who attacked his methods as barbaric. His 1883 obituary in The New York Times mentions his development of a treatment for vesicovaginal fistula, but nothing of the captive women he experimented on. It might have been a simple matter for a white reporter to ignore the descendants of the enslaved in 1883; in 2018, they will be heard.
Sims’s obfuscation of who his patients actually were—the tiniest hint of a guilty conscience—is echoed in the now-removed Central Park monument. The plaques on the statue’s sides read:
SURGEON AND PHILANTHROPIST
FOUNDER OF THE WOMAN’S HOSPITAL STATE OF
NEW YORK. HIS BRILLIANT
THE FAME OF AMERICAN
OUT THE ENTIRE WORLD
OF HIS SERVICES IN
THE CAUSE OF SCIENCE
AND MANKIND AWARDED
HIGHEST HONORS BY HIS
COUNTRYMEN AND DECOR-
ATIONS FROM THE GOVERNMENTS OF BELGIUM
The statue presents Sims in all his glory, with nary a mention of the human chattel that made his breakthroughs possible. Nor are Sims’s actions unique in American history. From the involuntary sterilization of black women throughout the South, to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments performed by the U.S. government, to the unconsented use of Henrietta Lacks’s cancer cells for research, American medicine has often involved the involuntary exploitation of its black population.
Statues can make for poor history. They are made to celebrate heroes, not to acknowledge human frailties. The former Confederate states erected tributes to their fallen soldiers across the South to honor the defense of human bondage, and the continued triumph of the color caste system that succeeded it after abolition. It is appropriate that a society that no longer seeks to honor slavery or white supremacy, or deceives itself about the Southern cause, ceases to honor the men who lead the fight for it.
In Sims’s case, his defenders may argue that his contributions to medical science outweigh his misdeeds. But it is precisely his use of enslaved black subjects for surgical experiments that made those contributions possible; it is not feasible to separate them, any more than it is possible to separate the physical bravery of Confederate soldiers from the cause to which they gave their lives. Sims became known as the “father of gynecology” not despite women like Lucy, Betsey, and Anarcha, but because of them.
Before the Public Design Commission took its vote, Michele Bogart, an art history professor and former member of the commission, urged it to leave the statue in place. “History matters,” she said, according to The New York Times. “Don’t run from it.”
Just as the Confederate Lost Cause deserves its reckoning, so does Sims deserve his. There is no way to honor Sims as a hero, while properly acknowledging those who suffered under his surgeon’s knife, so that others could someday be healed with less pain and more care. Removing Sims’s statue is not running from history. It is seeing history with the clarity it demands.
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