Today, New York City’s Public Design Commission accepted a recommendation from the mayor’s office to move the statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims, who made medical advances by performing experimental surgeries on female slaves without anesthesia or consent during the 19th century, from Central Park to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Relocation will begin Tuesday at 8AM.
Last August, a grisly photo showing four black women protesters with red paint splattered across their hospital gowns in front of the memorial to the man known as the “father of modern gynecology” went viral, and an online petition for its removal garnered more than 26,000 signatures.
One of the people who testified today in support of removing the statue was Kathleen O’Donnell, the senior vice president of the New York Academy of Medicine. She told the commission that while Sims’ actions “need to be acknowledged and accounted for in the history books, we should reserve public honors such as statues and markers for those in health and medicine who have made achievements without infringing on the civil and human rights of others.”
According to a report released in January, a mayoral commission found that “especially in its current location, the Sims monument has come to represent a legacy of oppressive and abusive practices on bodies that were seen as subjugated, subordinate, and exploitable in service to his fame.” The authors recommended relocating the statue, but leaving the engraved pedestal and adding an explanatory plaque to it and the statue in its new home; they also called for commissioning new work for the pedestal that would reflect the issues raised by the controversy.
The East Harlem Preservation, which has been fighting for the statue’s removal since 2010, called the move “placatory.” According to a post on its website, the decision to relocate, instead of remove altogether, the offensive monument “was seen as a slap in the face by many who had for years maintained that the statue’s presence did a huge disservice to the neighborhood’s majority Black and Latino residents—groups that have historically been subjected to medical experiments without permission or regard for their wellbeing.”
"New York City should not be keeping White Supremacy on any pedestal—and certainly not in this community.”
“Although we are grateful for the Mayor’s gesture,” the post continues, “we are also displeased that the wishes of over 20,000 petitioners, activists, and legislators who strongly objected to the monument’s presence [in] our neighborhood have not been fully acknowledged. New York City should not be keeping White Supremacy on any pedestal—and certainly not in this community.”
Deirdre Cooper Owens is an assistant professor of history at Queens College, CUNY, and author of Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology. She tells Broadly that she’s always been less interested in where the Sims statue is located and more concerned about “historical accuracy and context around slavery and the 19th century US medical landscape.”
“Green-Wood Cemetery is a tourist attraction as well and so Sims' final resting place will receive foot traffic—less than Central Park of course, but it will be open for public consumption in different ways,” Cooper Owens explains. “Sims' symbolic presence, through the construction and placement of his statue, should always be linked to the experimental surgical work he performed on his enslaved patients in the 1840s. … He was a slave-owning physician who relied on the sick bodies of enslaved women to repair surgically obstetrical fistula. He was transparent in his medical writings about his use of enslaved bodies, and we should be too.”
In terms of larger context, Cooper Owens says that she’s hopeful the conversations happening around Sims’ dehumanizing practices will continue “to address the legacy of race, gender, and status in maternal health outcomes for black women, poor women, and immigrant women that was born out of experimental surgeries that happened centuries ago.”
“For instance, medical schools like the University of Nebraska Medical Center has a Medical Humanities program that integrates bio-ethical concerns in patient treatment,” she says. “Midwife associations across the country are adopting books on the history of race, gynecology, and reproductive justice to teach themselves and their clients about the interconnected histories of bio-racism, slavery, medical ethics, and gender.”
She adds: “I am hopeful that the education and historical context will have long-lasting positive outcomes for black maternal health.”