The violence in Charlottesville and President Trump’s painfully divisive response have ignited outrage across the country and prompted Mayor De Blasio to order a review of “all symbols of hate on city property.” Now, that debate has made its way to a statue where the Upper East Side meets East Harlem.
The days may be numbered for the statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims at Fifth Avenue and East 103rd Street, as reported in DNAInfo. The city erected the monument to commemorate the Alabama surgeon widely known as the father of modern gynecology. But buried in his history are experimental surgeries he carried out on black slave women, abuses that solidified his legacy as a founding figure in modern medicine.
J. Marion Sims
East Harlem residents have been calling for the removal of the Sims statue for years, but today the drumbeat of outrage is growing. More and more New Yorkers are condemning the statue, including City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and institutions like the Museum of the City of New York. “There is a compelling argument to be made for the statue’s removal as a symbol of unethical racist medical practice,” reads the museum’s official statement.
After thirty surgeries on one girl, Anarcha, Sims perfected his technique”
The history of J. Marion Sims is a brutal glimpse into an old America. Sims treated slaves to survive financially after opening a clinic in Alabama. He was particularly valuable to plantation owners worried about their bottom line, but it wasn’t just about slave labor. Sims was interested in pushing the boundaries of research, and slaves were the perfect subjects. We memorialize Sims today because he perfected the technique to surgically correct vesicovaginal fistula, an excruciating complication of childbirth where a hole forms between the vagina and bladder during prolonged labor.
Until recently, historians viewed medical experimentation on slaves as isolated and rare. But a sweeping survey of old medical journals published in the journal Endeavour suggests that a widespread network of physicians and medical colleges across the American South carried out and published brutal slave experiments for decades. The Sims case is just one instance.
Anarcha, Lucey, and Betsey
Ten slave women were central to the Sims discovery, and Sims names three in his telling: Anarcha, Lucey and Betsey. Together they endured repeated untested surgical experiments without anesthesia for four years between 1845 and 1849. Sims instead opted for an ineffective opium that caused nausea and constipation. One of the enslaved, Anarcha, was a 17 year-old girl.
Sims often invited other physicians to watch as he performed surgery on these women, naked and shaken with terrible pain during the procedures. Using anasthesia was not a fully accepted practice at the time, even after its first demonstration in Boston in 1846. But the prevailing belief was that black people, especially black women, did not feel pain. It is hard to imagine that Sims would have subjected white women to the same experiments in hope of a cure. Only after his first successful surgery on the slaves did white women come to him requesting the same. After thirty surgeries on one girl, Anarcha, Sims perfected his technique. With newfound fame, Sims moved to New York City in the 1850s and gained a reputation as an excellent surgeon.
What’s in a statue?
We are still haunted by the legacy of slavery and grappling with the stories we want to tell about it. The fight in East Harlem over a plantation physician’s statue is no different. When the president fails to condemn white supremacy, even a statue can become a flash point of violence. Remember, the “Unite the Right” marchers were not chanting about Robert E. Lee.
Sims is not a Confederate general, but he is all the same an unvarnished symbol of an America that fought and died for the right to enslave black men and women. If monuments ask us to pause and remember our history, they also ask us to affirm our shared values. On an October day in 1894, prominent New Yorkers unveiled a statue to honor one of the city’s most esteemed surgeons and founder of New York’s Women’s Hospital. Today, let’s remember a different history behind his triumph.
So, tear down the statue and instead remember Anarcha, Lucey, and Betsey, and think about the seven women we will never know. Remember their names.
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