Bioethics Forum Essay
This Doctor Experimented on Slaves: It’s Time to Remove or Redo His Statue
“There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared to explain the removal of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans in May. The statues were, he argued, part of the terrorism campaign that threatened African American citizens for more than 150 years. Other cities, colleges, and universities are beginning to rethink, or rename, their historical monuments or buildings as well. New York City may not have bronzed paeans to defeated Confederate generals, but it does have a statue to a 19th century southern physician and transplanted New Yorker whom many think of as responsible for the torture of the slaves he bought to use for medical experimentation. It is time to consider anew what do about Dr. J. Marion Sims.
On a quiet side of Central Park on 5th Avenue and 103rd Street, just across from the New York Academy of Medicine in East Harlem, stands the larger-than-life Sims (1813-1883). His 14-foot marble statue, erected in 1894, was the first for a doctor in the United States, and it moved to this site in 1934. He is considered the father of modern gynecology. His claim to inventing the speculum that made possible the visualization of the vagina, and his 1840s surgeries on slave women to correct fistulas in their vaginal walls that allowed urinary and fecal material to continuously drip, made him famous. These tears often happen in very young mothers and from obstructed long labor, or in women with deformed pelvises from rickets, lack of proper nutrition, syphilitic ulcers, or serious infections. While this horrific damage, which leads to further infections, terrible smells, and social isolation, is now seen primarily in parts of Africa, it was a common problem for all women in the 19th century, especially before caesarean sections could be performed safely. They were seen especially frequently as a byproduct of slavery that enforced rape and demanded pregnancy of newly pubescent women.
Sims, born in South Carolina, was practicing in Montgomery, Alabama, when enslaved women with this malady came to his attention. In an effort of surgical bravado, Sims operated on nearly a dozen black women, three of whom we only know as Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. In an era when anesthesia for operations was just beginning to be used, and doctors debated whether white women and women of color felt pain as intensely as white men did, these multiple surgeries were done without the benefit of loss of sensation. As Sims himself would declare, “Lucy’s agony was extreme,” and Anarcha endured more than 13 attempts to close her fistula. After years of experimentation, and eventually the proffering of opium to his subjects to lessen their pain, make them less likely to complain, but also keep bowel movements limited, Sims found a way to remove the necrotized tissue and sew up these fissures with silver wire sutures. In 1853, he moved to New York, founded the Women’s Hospital, and became a world-renown celebrity physician who operated on royalty, served as president of the American Medical Association, and aided in the establishment of the first New York cancer institute.
Since the 1960s, however, concern about how Sims rose to his fame, and the women’s bodies he experimented on to do it, have raised serious concerns. His granite pedestal proclaims, “His brilliant achievement carried the fame of American surgery thought the entire world,” and says that the statue is in “recognition of his services in the cause of science & mankind.” Nowhere do we learn of Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy and the nameless others who made his career possible, except for concerns raised in feminist medical history texts that question the price paid by others for his achievements. At a time, too, when the history of medical experimentation on black bodies is remembered for the mistrust it engenders, should we still be staring up at a slave-owning Sims in all his medical glory? Or should we just understand that this was about the past and that in the end his surgical interventions saved countless lives, including probably those of Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy, from a serious problem that still haunts millions?
Community groups in East Harlem have unsuccessfully petitioned to have Sims removed from his perch as a constant reminder of the silences of the black women whose bodies he operated on, a different form of racial terrorizing from those of Confederate generals. Others have suggested that he be allowed to stand, but that we commission a larger plinth with bronzed imagined bodies of Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy towering over him. To do so, however, puts these women only in relationship to Sims and fails to give them a history beyond their butchered bodies.
There exists just one imagined well-known image of these women. Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy are only visible to us in the imagined famous portrait done by painter Robert A. Thom, and commissioned by the Parke Davis pharmaceutical company as part of its Great Moments in Medicine series. These portraits were then sent out as vibrant copies by the millions to doctor’s offices across the country between 1948 and 1961. In the Sims painting, one of the women is kneeling on a table in front of the seemingly thoughtful Sims and other doctors, while the other two women look on from behind a curtain. This imagined tableau suggests that the women are agreeing to be helped and offering up their bodies, or it can be read as their own worry and concern. Their slave status can only be known by their skin tone.
What then? More than pharmaceutical company portraits need to exist. Perhaps it is time to remove the signs on the granite pedestals that announce Sims’ surgical talent in New York, and at least explain to other generations how such success was achieved on the bodies of others. To do so might then gain what Mayor Landrieu wanted: remembrance but not reverence. Isn’t it time for us to think about the bioethics of remembrance too?
Susan M. Reverby, PhD, is McLean Professor Emerita of the History of Ideas and Professor Emerita of Women’s and Gender Studies at Wellesley College, Wellesley Massachusetts, and author of Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and its Legacy.