On August 19, four black women posed for a photo in front of a memorial outside the New York Academy of Medicine. Donning hospital gowns splashed with red paint around their pelvic area, the protestors flanked a statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims. The South Carolina-born gynecologist—who invented an early version of the speculum and developed a treatment for vesicovaginal fistula (a narrow opening in the vagina wall caused by traumatic childbirth or rape)—is known for performing experimental surgeries on female slaves without anesthesia or consent during the 19 th century.
The protestors' message was clear: This man painfully exploited black women, and any memorial to him should be removed.
The image, published on Facebook over the weekend, has since gone viral; the caption reads, in part: "[Sims] repeatedly performed genital surgery on Black women WITHOUT ANESTHESIA because according to him, 'Black women don't feel pain.' Despite his inhumane tests on Black women, Sims was named 'the father of modern gynecology', and his statue currently stands right outside of the New York Academy of Medicine. #FightSupremacy."
The women calling for the statue to be taken down are members of the youth activist organization Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100). Keeping in tune with other conversations happening around the country in the wake of Charlottesville's white supremacist rally, Rossanna Mercedes, a member of BYP 100, told New York Daily News: "Memorializing of imperialist slaveholders, murderers and torturers like J. Marion Sims is white supremacy. We will no longer allow government institutions like the New York City Parks Department to passively allow symbols of oppression."
"Endangering unknowing or innocent subjects in the name of some future advance means placing the health of some people over the health of others. Women have often received this kind of harm in the history of medicine. That's unethical and wrong."
But BYP 100 is not the first to demand New York's Sims statue be taken down. Over the past 10 years, the East Harlem Preservation has sponsored numerous efforts and discussions on this very endeavor. One advocate, Marina Ortiz, told the New York Times recently: "We are people who have been historically subjected to this experimentation. That's why the Sims statue doesn't belong in a predominantly black and Latino community. It's outrageous."
Thus far, the city has resisted removing the statue, citing a freedom of expression argument based on content. According to the East Harlem Preservation, the New York City Parks Department has stated that "the city does not remove 'art' for content."
There are two other memorials to Sims in the US—one in Montgomery, Alabama, where he practiced medicine, and another in Columbia, South Carolina. Speaking about a bust of Sims located on the statehouse grounds in Columbia last week, Mayor Steve Benjamin called it "the most offensive statue I find on our capitol," adding that "it should come down at some point."
Jack El-Hai, the author of The Lobotomist and The Nazi and the Psychiatrist, has spent time researching Sims' career. In a post on Medium published this morning, El-Hai called Sims "a baffling and complex figure — a man whose character mixed racism, brilliance, hubris, self-absorption, and ambition." He compared the doctor to Walter Freeman, a physician who specialized in the lobotomy. "The difference," the author writes, "is that no statues of Freeman stand anywhere, and the one honoring Sims, like the Confederate monuments that dot our country, should go."
These memorials to Sims serve as daily reminders to people who view them "that the lives of the enslaved women were inconsequential and not worthy of consideration," El-Hai tells Broadly. "Sims has a place in medical history, even an important place, but we shouldn't see him on a pedestal."
"It's important to understand all of the consequences of exploitative experiments, which includes the harm to subjects as well as the benefits to others," he continues. "Medicine is the science of improving health, and doctors pledge to do no harm. Endangering unknowing or innocent subjects in the name of some future advance means placing the health of some people over the health of others. Women have often received this kind of harm in the history of medicine. That's unethical and wrong."