Why the Statue of J. Marion Sims in New York City Should Go
You may have heard about the controversial statue of James Marion Sims, M.D., at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street in New York’s Central Park. The push to remove monuments dedicated to Confederate idols across America has brought renewed attention to the Sims statue.
That attention, though, is nothing new. Neighborhood groups in East Harlem have long called for the removal of the Sims statue. Many people consider Sims a butcher and a monster akin to the Nazi war criminals. They regard him as the perpetrator of villainous atrocities against enslaved women in the years before the Civil War. And they don’t like seeing him celebrated on public property.
I’m a writer of medical history who has researched Sims’s career for years. I’ve come to regard him as a baffling and complex figure — a man whose character mixed racism, brilliance, hubris, self-absorption, and ambition. In many ways, he’s like another physician I have written about: Walter Freeman, the pioneer and promoter of the lobotomy. The difference is that no statues of Freeman stand anywhere, and the one honoring Sims, like the Confederate monuments that dot our country, should go.
Sims looms large in the history of nineteenth-century gynecology as the innovator of many key gynecological and obstetrical procedures. Much of his fame is based on his development of a treatment for vesicovaginal fistula, a fissure in wall of the vagina that often results from rape or traumatic childbirth. Women with such fistulas suffered from social isolation because of chronic urinary and fecal incontinence.
Sims perfected his successful fistula surgery after experimenting on several enslaved African American women beginning in 1845 while he was practicing medicine in Montgomery, Alabama. These women did not choose to be Sims’s experimental subjects, may not have realized what he intended to do, and did not benefit from his trials until after they had endured rounds of agonizing and unsuccessful attempts. Sims didn’t anesthetize the women during his experiments because ether and other forms of anesthesia were not yet in use on surgical patients in Alabama. He might not have given them ether even if it were available.
Over four years, his repeated surgeries temporarily cured at least one of the enslaved women, whose name is recorded in the doctor’s autobiography as Anarcha. She went on to bear several children. Few people know that the records of the Woman’s Hospital of New York, which Sims founded as the first medical facility of its kind in the U.S., show that in 1856 he treated Anarcha for fistula a second time — a decade after his initial experiments on her. It’s fascinating to consider whether she underwent this surgery voluntarily (she was still a slave, now owned by the Maury family of Virginia), whether she received anesthesia, and how Sims and other doctors viewed her as an enslaved patient in a free state.
I have reached out to living people who have a blood link to Sims and the enslaved women, including descendants of the doctor and the slave-owners who determined the fates of the women. (Locating descendants of the enslaved women themselves is a formidable challenge, but with the help of a genealogist who specializes in African American famiIy history, I’m getting close.) So far I’ve found that these people all know about this dark chapter of medical history, which has passed down in their families through the generations. Some see Sims as a medical pioneer, and some feel revulsion at his approach to solving the fistula problem.
Today, nobody could possibly defend Sims’s medical ethics. He operated on women who could not legally consent to being experimented upon, and his work harmed and endangered them. Correcting vesicovaginal fistula is common now in the U.S., and we might give Sims credit for that. But Anarcha and the other women deserve as much credit. Maintaining a statue in a public place is a celebratory act, a form of applause, and I can’t imagine continuing to celebrate Sims and his career given what we know about his experimental methods.
The medical ethics of the nineteenth century, along with Sims’s intentions, are irrelevant to the question of the present disposition of the monument. There’s a Sims statue in New York City now — as well as in Montgomery and on the state capitol grounds in Columbia, South Carolina — and we, not the people of the past, are the ones who have to look at it and consider its meaning. We shouldn’t have to keep idolizing this physician. Like the Confederate generals whose statues are disappearing from their pedestals, Sims’s place in history is secure. His public approval, which the statue signifies, should end. The bronze Dr. Sims should move to another spot where accompanying monuments to Anarcha and the other enslaved women could tell the rest of the story.
Jack El-Hai is the author of The Lobotomist and The Nazi and the Psychiatrist. He lives in Minneapolis.