Nature's Disastrous ‘Whitewashing’ Editorial

Science's ethos of self-correction should apply to how it thinks about its own history, too.

A woman with a cane walks past the J Marion Sims statue in New York's Central Park.
The J. Marion Sims statue in New York's Central Park (Spencer Platt / Getty)

America’s public monuments are in greater peril than at any moment since the country’s birth, when a statue of King George III on horseback was pulled down by a mob, who melted its lead to make musket balls for the coming war for independence. In recent years, it is Confederate generals who have come under threat. Hundreds of such statues have had their removal proposed in local petitions, signed by citizens who have begun to wonder why someone who takes up arms against this country in the name of slavery ought to be so honored. After August’s violent white-supremacist protest in Charlottesville, a number of Confederate statues were veiled, or whisked away to dark storage basements. One was yanked to the ground by a mob.

Bronze incarnations of Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson have borne the brunt of this assault, but statues of scientists are also being singled out for rough treatment. In August, vandals defaced a Central Park statue of J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century surgeon, widely considered the “father of modern gynecology,” who experimented on enslaved women, performing repeated operations on them—up to 30 in the case of Anarcha Wescott, all without anesthesia—after soliciting their participation from their owners. “RACIST” was scrawled on Sims’s bronze likeness. His neck and eyes were also dabbed with red paint, giving him the look of a ghoul or demon. The vandalism followed a peaceful protest, at which several young women wore hospital gowns smeared with fake blood.

On Monday, the news arm of Nature, the most powerful publisher in the sciences, weighed in on the Sims controversy with an unsigned editorial entitled, “Removing Statues of Historical Figures Risks Whitewashing History.” In addition to Sims, Nature’s editorial also takes up the case of Thomas Parran Jr., for whom a hall is named at the University of Pittsburgh. Parran served as U.S. surgeon general between 1936 and 1948, during which time he oversaw the Public Health Service’s infamous Tuskegee experiment, which enrolled and followed 600 African American men with syphilis for four decades, without informing them that they were infected and without treating them, so that researchers could watch how that cruel disease eats away at a human body.

Nature warns us that removing Sims’s statue, or Parran’s name from a university hall, would “run the risk of whitewashing history,” and instead asks that these “painful reminders” be supplemented with additional plaques, or “an equally sized monument commemorating the victims.” Nature’s choice of the word “whitewashing” is unfortunate. The impulse behind the statue’s removal isn’t to erase our society’s sins from history in favor of a more sanitized narrative. Quite the opposite. But that is the least of this editorial’s problems.

Nature’s editors don’t say whether there is a substantive case to be made that Sims’s or Parran’s scientific achievements merit these honors in spite of their ghastlier deeds. You can understand why they’d be gun-shy about making that case. For one, the two figures’ sins are not private indiscretions, incidental to their professional reputations. Their treatment of black men and women as subhuman subjects was core to their work. They profited from these experiments, and in the field’s highest currency: scientific prestige. And their actions are not dead history. They are continuous with the racism that infects American society, to the present day. They helped construct a system of medical apartheid, in which black people were allowed to serve as subjects in the experiments that nudged medicine into modernity, but were denied the fruits of those experiments.

In Sims’s era, there was a myth that black people feel less pain, and even today, they find it harder to get prescriptions for pain medication. And with Tuskegee in living memory—the study was only ended after its exposure in 1972—black people are still more likely to believe medical conspiracies, and to maintain a general mistrust of the medical community, attitudes that cost many of them years of their lives, as my colleague Vann Newkirk has reported.

There is a useful precedent in cases involving the inhuman treatment of medical subjects. In the scientific community, there is a longstanding taboo on using results from Josef Mengele’s experiments on Jews in Nazi death camps. And nowhere on this Earth is Mengele honored with a public statue.

Nature’s editors seem to think that removing Sims’s statue would constitute an erasure of history, a claim that has also been advanced on behalf of Confederate monuments, by President Trump among others. These arguments badly misunderstand the role of statues in civic life. The writing of history and the building of monuments are distinct acts, motivated by distinct values. A society's monuments do not now, and never have, purported to be an accurate recording of its history, but rather an elevating of particular individuals as representative of its highest ideals and triumphs.

The activists who have called for the removal of Sims’s statue are not asking for his name and deeds to be stricken from the record. They are asking that we absorb the hard work of contemporary historians into our understanding of the past, and that we use that understanding to inform our choices about who we honor. That a historical figure existed at a different time, with different norms, is not irrelevant. But it is only one consideration in the fraught and important question, as to who should loom over us on pedestals, enshrined in metal or stone that is meant to withstand millennia of abuse from the elements.

It might be that Nature thinks this monument should stand as a new kind of memorial: A statue of a man, once conceived in honor, but now positioned alongside his transgressions against humanity, as a symbol of a society reckoning with its past. Some of our museums serve this public purpose. But to make that case would require a more thorough reimagining of our general theory of monuments. While we are still saddled with a simpler theory of statues as ideals, these celebrate the wrong ideals, a tragedy in a culture that has too few monuments to scientists.

The timing of Nature’s editorial couldn’t be worse. It arrives at a moment when prominent male scientists still abuse their power to take advantage of women, sexually and otherwise. A moment when science is beginning to work, as a field, to cast off the great-man theory that has previously distorted so much of its history. A moment when younger scientists, and historians of science, are puncturing a pernicious fantasy, dearly held by many of their elders, that science is some Olympian realm set apart, and not part and parcel of the messy world of human affairs, with its sordid past of racism, sexism, colonialism, and other shames that are still with us today.

When scientists debate climate denialists and anti-vaxxers, they often point out, rightly, that science is a self-correcting discipline. There is no reason this ethic of self-correction shouldn’t apply to choices the scientific community makes about who it honors.