Statue of Controversial Surgeon to Be Moved From Central Park

Alicia Ault

January 17, 2018

The statue of gynecologic surgeon J. Marion Sims, MD — steeped in controversy over his experimental surgery on slaves — will be moved from New York City's Central Park to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where the physician is buried.

The move was announced by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in response to recommendations from his Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers. The panel was assembled last fall to review options for a handful of what de Blasio said were controversial monuments in the city, including the statue of Dr Sims (1813-1883).

In addition to moving the statue, which was the work of German sculptor Ferdinand von Miller, New York will add informational plaques to the statue and its existing pedestal "to explain the origin of the statue, commission new artwork with public input that reflects issues raised by Sims legacy, and partner with a community organization to promote in-depth public dialogues on the history of non-consensual medical experimentation of people of color, particularly women," according to the mayor's statement.

In its January report, the mayoral advisory panel had recommended multiple options, including removal. Committee members "felt it was impossible to evaluate the monument separately from the practices of white doctors experimenting upon Black bodies without consent," adding, "Sims had the power to make these experiments, gain fame from the process, and be venerated on a pedestal after he passed away." But "the enslaved women he experimented upon had none of this power. Free consent to participate in the experiments was not obtainable from women who were not free. The Commission felt that it would be wrong to continue to overlook this distressing imbalance of power."

The panel also said that even though it is likely that Dr Sims was a contributor to medicine, "the extent of his medical advances with regard to treating the fistula remains under dispute."

No member of the public testified in support of keeping the statue in Central Park, according to the committee report.

A Figure Mired in Controversy

Dr Sims, dubbed the "father of modern gynecology," was credited with  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.

He has also been condemned for experimental vesicovaginal fistula surgeries on slave women — without their consent and without the use of anesthesia — conducted primarily during his years of practice in Alabama from 1835 to 1849.

Dr Sims then moved to New York City, where he helped establish the Woman's Hospital, which was located in East Harlem. Shortly after his death, colleagues began collecting funds in the hopes of erecting a statue to honor a man they considered a pioneer in women's health care. The New York Times reported in 1887 that those colleagues had collected some $7500 and had begun soliciting artists to create a bronze statue to be placed in Central Park. It was unveiled in 1894 — with crowdfunding from about 12,000 individuals — in Bryant Park, not Central Park.

According to the Times' account of the unveiling, Dr Sims was lauded for, among other qualities, his perseverance.  "His first operation was on a female slave and was unsuccessful. He operated again and again on the same subject, and finally, in his thirtieth trial, he was successful," wrote the reporter. Indeed, records show  that he operated on one slave, Anarcha, 30 times.

When Bryant Park underwent renovation decades later, the statue of Dr Sims was put into storage. Dr Sims' admirers took the opportunity to lobby to move the statue to Central Park, where it would theoretically get more notice and be closer to the original and new locations of the Woman's Hospital. They successfully had the statue moved to the park at Fifth Avenue and 103rd in 1934, where it has stood ever since.

In August 2017, the activist group Black Youth Project 100 protested in front of the statue, according to media reports, with a group of women wearing hospital gowns splattered with red paint on the abdominal area. A Facebook post of that photo was shared more than 200,000 times. Later that month, according to the New York Daily News, a vandal spray-painted the statue with red paint and the word "racist."

A Medscape survey that same month found clinicians overwhelmingly against removal of monuments. Sixty-three percent of the 8200 physicians who responded said the statue of Dr Sims should not be removed. If the statue were to be removed, survey respondents said, it should be placed in a museum or donated to a medical institution.

When asked what type of behavior would warrant removing a monument or commemoration of a healthcare provider, about half of those surveyed cited all of these actions: conducting research without consent; knowingly harming subjects; withholding vital medical treatment during or after a study; and refusing to care for a patient based on ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation.

Other Removals in the Works?

Statues of Dr Sims were also erected in Columbia, South Carolina, and on the Capitol grounds in Montgomery, Alabama. In December, the mayor of Columbia called for the removal of the statue, according to the Post and Courier.  

No further plans have been revealed, and nothing has been said about the fate of the Alabama statue.

In 2006, the painting "Medical Giants of Alabama," which depicted Dr 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 in the wake of complaints that it was offensive, the Montgomery Advertiser reported at the time.

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