Why We Should Remove the Central Park Statue of Dr. James Marion Sims

tags: Confederate Monuments, James Marion Sims

Alan Singer is a social studies educator and historian in the Department of Teaching Learning Technology at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York. He is a member of the New York State Council for the Social Studies, New Jersey Council for the Social Studies, Long Island Council for the Social Studies and the Association of Teachers of Social Studies (New York City).

Related Links

● Let’s Keep the Central Park Statue of Dr. James Marion Sims By Steven Lomazow

●  Removing statues of historical figures risks whitewashing history (Editorial in Nature)

As controversy surges over statues, street names, parks, and schools commemorating racists, proponents of slavery, anti-Semites, and Civil War era traitors, a new defense is emerging, ethical relativism. Its proponents say judge historical actors by the standards of their time when racism, anti-Semitism, and dehumanization were more commonplace and widely accepted. The question remains, even if we judge people like Andrew Jackson, who committed genocide against native people in the United States, Robert E. Lee, who declared war on the country he swore to defend in order to preserve slavery, and medical “researcher” James Marion Sims, who murdered enslaved African women during the course of experimental surgery, by their own ethical standards, does that justify honoring them today?

In New York, protesters are targeting for removal a statue of Sims mounted, since 1934, on the outer wall of Central Park at 103rd street and 5th Avenue. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is establishing a commission to review the background behind statues on city-owned property. Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito especially wants this one removed. She charges that Sims operated in “sadistic” fashion on female slaves without the use of anesthesia and without their consent.

Sims is honored as a founder of gynecology and for establishing a Woman’s Hospital and a Cancer Hospital, which is now the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. However, between 1845 and 1849, Sims performed experimental gynecological operations on countless enslaved African women in the American south including over 34 operations on a single woman without the benefit of anesthesia or any type of antiseptic. Many of the women he experimented on died from infection. The Mayor of Columbia South Carolina, Steve Benjamin, is demanding that a bust of Sims be removed from that State’s Capitol grounds.

At least two local newspapers, Newsday and AM New York recently published articles quoting a medical ethicist that seems to exonerate Sims from crimes. Dr. L. Lewis Wall of Washington University in St. Louis is quoted as saying the condemnation of Sims is “bad history.”

In a 2006 article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Wall called Sims “arguably the most famous American surgeon of the 19th century and today he is generally acknowledged as the founder of modern surgical gynaecology.” He credited Sims with developing “the first consistently successful operation for the cure of vesicovaginal fistula, a catastrophic complication of childbirth in which a hole develops between a woman's bladder and her vagina and leads to constant, unremitting, and uncontrollable urinary incontinence.” Wall also acknowledged that between 1845 and 1849, Sims conducted repeated operations on enslaved African women at his home in Montgomery, Alabama. “One young woman, a slave named Anarcha with a particularly difficult combination vesicovaginal and rectovaginal fistula, underwent 30 operations before Sims was able to close the holes in her bladder and rectum.”

Other medical ethicists take a very different view of Sims. Writing in the same academic journal, Durrenda Ojanuga sharply attacked Sims for achieving fame and fortune as “a result of unethical experimentation with powerless Black women” and refers to his attempts to cure vesicovaginal fistulas as “a classic example of the evils of slavery and the misuse of human subjects for medical research.”

Sims, himself, wrote a defense of his experiments, in the January 1855 issue of the New York Medical Gazette and Journal of Health, which suggests that there were questions about his ethics at the time. In his defense, Sims reported that ‘three young healthy colored girls” were “given to me by their owners in Alabama” or his experiments, but that he insisted on and received the “full consent of the patients.”

Four points immediately stand out to me.

1. The girls were “given” to Sims for experimentation by their “owners.”

2. It seems unlikely that enslaved African women in Alabama in the 1840s had the ability to give their own informed consent or to refuse the operations.

3. These three girls Sims experimented are described as “healthy.” Sims told the slave owners that his efforts would not “produce greater mischief on the injured organs,” but it is not clear whether all these women actually suffered from vesicovaginal fistula.

4. If the women did have vesicovaginal fistula, the operation would restore them to their condition as enslaved workers and human breeders, to the benefit of slave owners.

Sims was born in Lancaster County, South Carolina to a slave-owning family and in South Carolina and Alabama he served the slavocracy as a doctor. In The Story of My Life, published by his son in 1884, Sims retroactively mounted another defense of his actions as a medical researcher during the slavery era. In the autobiography, Sims described his first experimental operation on an enslaved African woman name Lucy in 1845. He caused her excruciating pain and almost killed her because of his own “stupid” mistakes (237-239).

While in Alabama, Sims owned a “dozen negroes” that he described as “house negroes and town negroes – cooks, waiters, and body-servants” (168). According to Sims, they loved him and his wife as benevolent slaveholders. As he prepared to sell them off and move to New York City in 1853, Sims claimed they woefully said “Oh, no, master, we don’t want to know any other person for a master but you, and we don’t want to know any other woman for a missues but Mrs. Theresa” (265). He also claimed in the book that he promised to make the best arrangements possible for them, even allowing them to select their new masters. However, letters to his wife tell a different story. Sims wrote, “Sell what are necessary for immediate purposes. They will be sacrificed, but no matter, we must live, let it cost what it may” (400). In a second letter he wrote, “Whatever you do about the negroes is all right. I don’t allow myself a moment’s thought, further than the anxiety I might naturally feel about the trouble it gives you, my model wife” (405).

At first, Sims was unhappy with his move North. In an 1854 letter, Sims wrote despairingly of New York and in praise of Southern slavery. “What a contrast between this country and the South. Here we have vagrancy and pauperism and all its attendant ills of vice, crime, and degradation, which we may never see in a slave population” (391).

During and after the Civil War, Sims continued to support slavery and dismiss abolitionists and reformers who believed in justice and equality. In the “autobiography” Sims recounted a telling interlude while attending an 1861 conference at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin (343-344). He encountered, to his great displeasure, a “strong-minded” young women who was “devising ways and means of elevating her sex; a radical in politics, pitching into slavery particularly.” In an 1871 denunciation of Reconstruction, Sims argued “we of the South are a congenial people. Have you of the North been magnanimous or generous to a fallen foe? to a prostrate brother? No, sir, you have ruled us with a tyrant power. You have been merciless and vindictive. You have forced upon us conditions humiliating to our pride and subversive of our rights. You have confiscated our property and disfranchised our best citizens. You have robbed us of civil liberty, and degraded us politically below the level of the meanest slave that ever wore a shackle” (419).

By his own testimony, Dr. James Marion Sims understood the pain he inflicted on enslaved African women during his experiments and was an unrepentant racist and advocate for slavery until the end of his life. Sims defended his actions because he knew there were serious questions about his medical ethics, even among his contemporaries. It is way past time to remove his statue from public display in New York City’s Central Park.

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