For decades, a statue of a doctor who performed painful surgeries on enslaved black women without anesthesia stood in Central Park, across from the New York Academy of Medicine.
On Tuesday, that statue came down, while onlookers stood by and cheered.
J. Marion Sims was long known as the “father of modern gynecology”: He’s known for creating the vaginal speculum as well as a successful treatment for “vesico-vaginal fistulas,” a wound between a woman’s bladder and vagina that often developed after childbirth.
But Sims conducted much of his research on slaves who were rarely given anesthesia. Three women, slaves named Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey, are known subjects of Sims’s work; other women’s names have been lost to history. As debates about Confederate monuments raged last year, academics and activists intensified their calls for Sims’s legacy to be revisited, noting that his work raises serious ethical questions about experimenting on women who could never truly consent.
Those protests led to action on Tuesday, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered the removal of Sims’s statue one day after New York City’s Public Design Commission voted unanimously to take it down.
It’s the latest development in a series of disputes over US statues that commemorate controversial figures: Last August, white supremacist groups violently protested efforts to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, adding fuel to national debates about the prominence (and removal) of Confederate monuments. But the statue controversy also points to a larger reckoning that seeks to address America’s failure to truly acknowledge the racism of its past and present.
Sims’s work is part of the US’s long history of medical racism
In 2006, the University of Alabama Birmingham removed a painting of Sims that had called him one of the “Medical Giants of Alabama.” The Atlantic notes that earlier this year, the Medical University of South Carolina quietly renamed an endowed chairmanship, which had initially been named for Sims.
Sims’s legacy isn’t unique — it speaks to a lengthy history of black people dealing with vast disparities in health outcomes even as their bodies are used to advance medicine in the US, a history that includes the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and the use of Henrietta Lacks’s cells for cancer research.
“The vestiges of abuse continue to haunt the medical system and give context to current racial disparities,” Vox/ProPublica video fellow Ranjani Chakraborty explained last year in a Pulitzer-nominated video on slavery’s effects on the US medical system.
According to de Blasio’s office, the statue of Sims will be moved to the Brooklyn cemetery where the surgeon is buried. A plaque next to the statue will explain Sims’s work on black slaves and will explicitly mention Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey, three of the women whose bodies were used in his research.