Remove Physician Statue From NYC Park: Right or Wrong?

Stephanie Cajigal

Disclosures

August 25, 2017

It was probably only a matter of time before the Charlottesville-inspired movement to remove offensive statues would make its way to the world of medicine. From the Tuskegee Study to Henrietta Lacks, the history of the medical field includes more than a few examples of research done via questionable means.

As the New York Daily News reported this week, protestors have urged the removal of a statue of a controversial physician in New York City's Central Park. (There are two additional statues of this physician on state-owned property, one in Montgomery, Alabama, and another in Columbia, South Carolina.)

The physician depicted in the statue, J. Marion Sims, MD (1813-1883), is considered the "father of modern gynecology" and is credited with such advances as conducting the first successful treatment for vesicovaginal fistula, the first gallbladder surgery, and introducing antiseptic principles in all areas of surgical treatment. The Sims position and Sims speculum, still used in gynecology today, are named after him. Marion Sims served as the inspiration for gynecologist Marion Stone in the popular book Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.

But critics of Dr Sims say his legacy is marred by the fact that from 1845 to 1849, he conducted experimental vesicovaginal fistula surgeries on slave women without their consent and without the use of anesthesia. One of his subjects, as Durrenda Ojanuga describes in a 1993 article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics , was forced to undergo an hour-long operation in a hands-and-knees position in front of an audience of 12 physicians. She nearly died from blood poisoning, the result of an experimental sponge used by Dr Sims to drain urine from her bladder. And Dr Sims reportedly operated on another slave woman 30 times.

In a 2006 article published in the same journal, however, L. Lewis Wall, MD, DPhil, a Washington University professor of obstetrics and gynecology, claims that Dr Sims' subjects willingly allowed him to experiment on them in hopes that he'd cure their vesicovaginal fistulas, a devastating, life-altering condition that at the time had no other viable treatment. Dr Wall’s article includes the following quote from a doctor speaking at the 1857 annual meeting of the Georgia State Medical Society, describing how some women with vesicovaginal fistulas are: "compelled to sit constantly on a chair, or stool, with a hole in the seat, through which the urine descends into a vessel beneath." In addition, as Dr Wall notes, during the time that Dr Sims was performing his experiments, anesthesia was not widely used, and a few of Dr Sims' published cases describe operating on white women without anesthesia.

What other medical pioneers should be knocked off their pedestals? Tell us in the comments section.

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