Sims’s contributions to science and medicine are revered by many, but reviled by those who know of the pain endured by female slaves on whom he operated without anesthesia in the mid-1800s: he was trying to find the cure for a painful post-birth condition known as vesico-vaginal fistula.
“There is no doubt that he carried out experiments on women, and that he was only able to do so because they were slaves,” says Deborah McGregor, a history professor at the University of Illinois and author of From Midwives to Medicine: The Birth of American Gynecology.
The issue now is whether the city should continue to honor Sims’s achievements or signal its disapproval of his methods by removing his statue from its place at Fifth Avenue near 103rd Street, opposite the New York Academy of Medicine, a historically African-American neighborhood that is now largely Puerto Rican.
“Should the NYC Parks Department remove the statue of Dr. Marion Sims from its East Harlem location considering his experiments on female and infant slaves?” asked a recent poll on EastHarlemPreservation.Org, an advocacy organization that promotes and preserves the
neighborhood’s cultural, architectural and environmental history.
Of the 650 respondents, 62 percent voted for removal, while 16 percent wanted to keep the statue in place, and 23 percent said they needed more information.
A 2007 petition by the office of New York City Councilmember Charles Barron to remove the statue went nowhere, said Marina Ortiz, president and founder of East Harlem Preservation. But Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito has told the group that she is open to advocating for the statue’s removal.
Meanwhile, a spokesman from the NYC Parks and Recreation department says there have been no requests to get rid of the statue. Frances Mastrota, chair of the Community Board 11 Parks and Recreation Committee, says she did not know about the statue, but added that she would look into possible requests to have it removed.
Sims was a controversial figure even in his lifetime. Born in South Carolina in 1813, he attended medical school in his home state and in Philadelphia, and spent the early part of his career practicing in Alabama, where he owned slaves. In addition to his pioneering work in the field of gynecology —among other things -- he invented the speculum, an instrument that allows doctors to see into the vagina—he boasted of being the first doctor in the South to successfully treat clubfoot and cross-eyes.
A major focus of his gynecological work was finding a way to repair vesico-vaginal fistula, a painful and embarrassing disorder caused by prolonged labor that results in the complete loss of urinary (and often fecal) control, as well as other side effects. In Sims’s era, the condition was “a physical and social calamity,” as one researcher puts it, and women with the condition were forced to avoid contact with other people, and were sometimes sent away from their families.
Sims operated on at least 10 slave women from about 1845 to 1849.
Although anesthesia became available in 1846, at least three of the slaves—Lucy, Anarcha and Betsey — endured surgery without it.
A New York Times article in October 1894 explains how Sims’s “first operation was on a female slave and was unsuccessful. He operated again and again on the same subject [Anarcha], and finally, in his thirtieth trial, he was successful.”
In his autobiography, Sims wrote about Lucy: “The poor girl, on her knees, bore the operation with great heroism and bravery. Lucy's agony was extreme.”
After perfecting his technique and repairing the fistulas successfully in Anarcha. Sims then repaired those of several other slave women. Only after these surgeries proved successful did he try the procedure on his white female paients, this time with anesthesia. (According to McGregor and others, Sims also operated on infants born to slaves).
Sims moved to New York in 1853, becoming famous over the next few decades for a number of advances in the treatment of female patients. During the Civil War, he traveled to London and Paris, where his patients included Empress Eugenie. He was named president of the American Medical Association in 1875 and the Gynecological Society in 1879. He died in New York in 1883.
Sims’s bronze and granite statue, designed by German sculptor Ferdinand von Miller II, was first erected in Bryant Park, near the New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan, in 1892, and moved to East Harlem in 1934. A placard on the monument reads: “Surgeon and philanthropist, founder of the Woman’s Hospital State of New York. In recognition of his services in the cause of science and mankind.”
The current backlash against Sims has its roots in the women’s movement of the mid-1970s. But Sims also has his defenders, including L. Lewis Wall, a doctor and professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Sims's modern critics have discounted the enormous suffering experienced by fistula victims, Wall wrote in a 2005 article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, adding that Sims’s failure to use anesthesia on his black patients in the 1840s was not necessarily racist:
“Acceptance [of anesthesia among doctors at the time] was not universal, and there was considerable opposition to its introduction from many different quarters, for many different reasons.”
Walls noted: “The evidence suggests that Sims's original patients were willing participants in his surgical attempts to cure their affliction—a condition for which no other viable therapy existed at that time.”
“I think it’s important to add that he did help some of the women by creating a working treatment for a miserable condition,” agrees McGregor, the history professor. Still, she adds, “I sympathize with the desire to remove the statue. Perhaps the best compromise is to make a statue honoring Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy.”
But Ortiz, of East Harlem Preservation, believes the Sims statue should go.
“I don’t think that the average Puerto Rican in East Harlem would find this statue representative of their community,” she says, adding. “Building a statue of the three [slave] women won’t solve the issue.”
Andres Caballero is currently an MS student at Columbia School of Journalism.
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