Let’s Keep the Central Park Statue of Dr. James Marion Sims

tags: Confederate Monuments, James Marion Sims

Steven Lomazow, M.D., is the Past President of the New Jersey Society of Medical History and an adjunct Professor of History at Kean University. He’s the co-author of FDR’s Deadly Secret (Public Affairs 2010).  

Related Link  Why We Should Remove the Central Park Statue of Dr. James Marion Sims By Alan Singer

Dr J. Marion Sims (1813-1883) founded the first woman's hospital in America and was the most celebrated American physician of the nineteenth century. Recent events in New Orleans and Charlottesville have added momentum for review and possible removal of his statue from its location in Central Park at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue based on allegations of surgical "experimentation" upon unwilling slave women in antebellum Alabama. The only authoritative Sims biography, Woman’s Surgeon by Seale Harris (MacMillan, 1950) is referenced below. A careful examination of the facts provides overwhelming evidence in his defense.

Sims was born and raised in South Carolina, trained in Philadelphia and practiced in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1840's, establishing a reputation as a highly skilled physician and surgeon. As painful as it may seem today, there is no justification to assume that any prominent white man in the antebellum deep south would possess the prescience to comprehend what we know today about the evils of slavery. Like virtually every other white man of means in Birmingham, Sims was a slave owner, in his case a small number to maintain his home.  By all reports, they were treated humanely and when Sims moved north he and his wife worked together with their active participation to insure they would continue to be well treated. (Seale p. 147)

In Birmingham, over a period of four years, decades prior to the widespread use of anesthesia, Sims pioneered novel surgical techniques and instrumentation (the Sims speculum endures as a staple of modern-day gynecological practice) that led to a cure for a previously untreatable and horrendously disabling condition, vesico-vaginal fistula. This is an abnormal connection between the bladder and vagina brought about as a consequence of traumatic childbirth that condemned its victims to a life of continuous uncontrollable leakage of urine, and in severe cases feces, that often resulted in suicide. Sims's patients were slave women who heroically endured painful and repetitive procedures during the process of perfecting the operation. With no other prospect of returning to any semblance of a normal life, they were willing participants (Seale, p. 86) and maintained in small hospital adjacent to Sims’s home. Their selection was not against their will as presently alleged, but with the altruistic goal of curing an intensely disabling medical condition.

Sims’s last major barrier to success was an invariable breakdown of the suture line due to local reaction to the silk suture material commonly employed at the time. The dramatically successful epiphany that provided the final piece of the puzzle was the use a fine silver thread, after which patients were often cured with one procedure. Other important innovations were the use of indwelling bladder catheters and the use of opiates to attenuate urinary and fecal contamination of the operative site. 

Any indictment of Sims for not using anesthesia is specious. His operation was perfected between 1845 and 1849 and opium was used for pain control (Seale p. 88). Ether anesthesia was not publicly demonstrated until 1845 at the Massachusetts General Hospital. The first to use chloroform was Crawford Long in Georgia as early as 1841, but his work wasn’t widely known for decades until publicized by Sims. The first use of anesthesia for childbirth was in Britain in late 1847, in Britain. Queen Victoria was not given anesthesia for childbirth until her seventh delivery in 1853! General anesthesia was not in common use until after the Civil War, during which battlefield amputations were conducted with nothing more than a leather strap to bite on and an occasional belt of brandy.

Prior to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and subsequent evolution of modern standards of institutional review, medical history is replete with both successful and failed trial and error research. There are egregious examples of unethical medical treatment of African-Americans for which there can be no justification, most notably the notorious Tuskegee syphilis study, but lumping Sims with this outrageous breach of morality is unfair. Comparison to the horrendous butchery of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele is unwarranted grandstanding.

In the early 1850's, Sims relocated his medical practice to New York City due to his own dire medical condition of tropical dysentery. After struggling to gain acceptance in an alien medical community, his unique abilities were ultimately recognized, resulting in his establishment of America's first hospital for women in 1855 at Madison Avenue and 27th Street. Sims provided advanced and remarkably safe surgical treatment for hundreds of patients, including many indigent Irish immigrants. Prior to the seminal work on antisepsis by Joseph Lister, in an era where surgical mortality was greater than forty percent, Sims transformed American surgical practice from a desperate expedient to a curative science, employing “radical” techniques for his time such as handwashing and the use of clean wound dressings and instruments. Plans were soon in the works for expansion to larger facility on Park Avenue (on the site of the present-day Waldorf Astoria), but the Civil War intervened. Having conflicted loyalties to both sides of the conflict, Sims decided to relocate to Europe, where he was widely celebrated as an innovative American medical pioneer.  

Returning to New York after the war, Sims reassumed his role as a teacher and leader of the American medical profession, including a term as president of the American Medical Association. His attempt to add a cancer pavilion to the hospital he had established was thwarted as the disease was widely considered infectious by the medical community and carried a stigma akin to AIDS in the 1980's. Importantly and wholly unappreciated today, Sims then pioneered medical philanthropy by recruiting funds from his wealthy clientele and their families, including descendants of John Jacob Astor and Alexander Hamilton, resulting in the establishment in 1885 of America's first hospital for the treatment of cancer, the direct progenitor of today's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

In 1892, a statue of Sims was erected in Bryant Park as a tribute to his accomplishments, in particular as the father of the specialty of gynecology. As public memory of Sims faded, the statue was removed, but in 1932 it was resurrected when a group of enlightened physicians familiar with the magnitude of his accomplishments had it relocated across the street from the New York Academy of Medicine where it presently stands.

Removing statues of treasonous Confederate General Robert E. Lee or Justice Roger B. Taney, who crafted the notorious Dred Scott decision, cannot be conflated with those of American founders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson simply because they were all slaveholders. The controversial monuments recently removed or covered were constructed after the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” doctrine, more in recognition of white supremacy than the men they depicted.  Historical figures must be judged individually by the gestalt of their character, within the context of the times in which they lived. Dr. J. Marion Sims is no exception. His statue is an appropriate tribute to a great American and should remain.

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