Amid demands to remove Confederate statues across the country, cries have grown louder to dismantle monuments to J. Marion Sims, the “father of gynecology,” a white 19th-century doctor who performed surgical experiments on enslaved black women without anesthesia.
Over the weekend, a Sims statue in New York City, where he established the first hospital for women in 1855, was vandalized. “RACIST” was spray-painted on the Central Park monument, and splotches of red paint were used to deface the statue’s eyes and neck.
The city is considering whether to remove the statue, the site of an Aug. 19 protest, as part of a 90-day review of “symbols of hate” on city property, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week. The memorial was denounced by New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who described Sims’ work as “repugnant and reprehensible” and a “stain on our nation’s history.” The New York Academy of Medicine reissued its statement calling for the statue’s removal.
Sims, a South Carolina native who practiced medicine in Alabama from 1835-49 before moving to New York, invented the speculum and other instruments still in use today. He pioneered surgery for fistula, a condition that left women incontinent after giving birth; historians say the treatment revolutionized the field of gynecology. He also performed the first successful gallbladder surgery and the first successful artificial insemination.
But to make those advances, Sims performed experimental surgeries on enslaved women, raising disturbing ethical questions. His legacy has long been questioned by those who believe he used black women as medical guinea pigs without their consent.
Protesters have demanded removal of a monument to Sims in his home state of South Carolina, on the State House grounds in Columbia. Mayor Steve Benjamin, Columbia’s first African-American leader, said in an MSNBC interview that he is more offended by the statue of Sims on the capitol grounds than any Confederate memorial. The state health department building is also named in his honor.
A statue of Sims also stands on the capitol grounds in Montgomery, Alabama. In 2005, a painting entitled “Medical Giants of Alabama” that depicted Sims and other white men standing over a partially clothed black patient was removed from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Center for Advanced Medical Studies because of complaints from people offended by it.
According to a 2006 Washington Post article: “Anarcha Wescott, Sims’s patient in the painting, endured 30 surgeries as Sims worked to perfect the technique. She was among about a dozen slaves on whom Sims operated repeatedly without anesthesia, which was just being developed and not widely used at the time. Some scholars have questioned whether the slaves gave or were capable of giving informed consent to the surgery, despite Sims’ claim they eagerly sought his cures.”
Sims, born in 1813 in Lancaster County, graduated in 1835 from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama. Sims opened a medical practice in Lancaster, but his practice “failed within the year after two infants under his treatment died.” Sims moved to Alabama and settled in Macon County, where he began working as a doctor treating enslaved people on local plantations.
He built a hospital, Sims wrote in his autobiography, “The Story of My Life,” “in the corner of my yard for taking care of my negro patients and for negro surgical cases.”
The hospital, he wrote, had 16 beds – four for servants and 12 for patients. He began trying to treat fistula, a catastrophic injury from childbirth that at the time was considered incurable.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, “First reports of successful repairs emerged in the literature around the mid-19th century when James Marion Sims described his technique of a transvaginal approach with the use of silver sutures and bladder drainage postoperatively.”
In his autobiography, Sims described surgeries performed on enslaved patients, including Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey.
Sims wrote that he made a “proposition to owners of negroes: 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. I will keep them at my own expense.”
He wrote that he “was very enthusiastic” and expected to cure them within six months. Anarcha was described as “a mulatto girl” about 14; Lucy was described as about 18 and had given birth to a child “two months ago, and that since that time she had been unable to hold any water.”
Lucy’s bladder was destroyed, “leaving an opening between the vagina and the bladder, at least 2 inches in diameter or more,” Sims wrote.
“That was before the days of anaesthetics, and the poor girl, on her knees, bore the operations with great heroism and bravery. I had about a dozen doctors there to witness the series of experiments that I expected to perform. All the doctors had seen my notes often and examined them, and agreed that I was on the eve of a great discovery, and every one of them was interested in seeing me operate.”
Sims wrote that the operations were tedious and difficult. It took Lucy two or three months to recover. Soon after, Sims operated on Betsey. “I repeated the operation in the same way and manner as performed on Lucy with the exception of placing in the bladder a self-retaining catheter instead of the sponge. I started out very hopefully and of course, I waited anxiously for the result of the operation.”
The Sims monument in New York, on Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, was sculpted by Ferdinand von Miller II and dedicated Oct. 29, 1894, according to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.
The Black Youth Project 100, a group of social justice activists ages 18 to 35, staged the protests at the statute in New York. The activists wore hospital gowns splashed with red paint dripping down their legs.
In a Facebook post, they explained that Sims had “purchased Black women slaves and used them as guinea pigs for his untested surgical experiments. He repeatedly performed genital surgery on Black women WITHOUT ANESTHESIA because according to him, ‘Black women don’t feel pain.’ Despite his inhumane tests on Black women, Sims was named ‘the father of modern gynecology’ and his statue currently stands right outside of the New York Academy of Medicine. #FightSupremacy.”