BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- A statue of J. Marion Sims stands on the Capitol grounds in Montgomery. A few blocks away, a historic marker at the site where his office stood in the 1840s celebrates him as "The Father of Modern Gynecology."
Sims also is remembered with a statue at the edge of New York's Central Park near the women's hospital he founded. Another stands on the statehouse grounds in his native South Carolina.
But a painting of Sims, one of his slave patients and four other "Medical Giants of Alabama" has been removed from above the fireplace at the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Center for Advanced Medical Studies because of questions of race, gender and medical ethics.
The painting, by Marshall Bouldin III, was commissioned for $20,000 in 1982 and paid for by donors. It hung in a space intended to host faculty discussion and debate, and the painting was intended to be provocative.
But complaints from guests and an ongoing scholarly controversy surrounding Sims's medical experimentation on slave women in the 1840s led a committee of doctors late last year to recommend its removal.
"Given Alabama's collective history and the concerns regarding the surgeon's ethics, a more appropriate place for the painting is in the archives," said university spokeswoman Dale Turnbough.
Jim Pittman, former dean of UAB's medical school, said his feelings about the painting's removal are complex.
He said Sims made major contributions to medicine and his actions need to be understood in the context of his times. But Pittman also recognizes modern sensitivities.
"I think that political correctness is running the world these days," he said.
Sims, who practiced medicine in Alabama from 1835 to 1853, developed gynecological tools and techniques still in use. Operating on slave women, Sims pioneered a surgery to repair a then-common and dreaded condition caused by prolonged delivery of a child.
His procedure cured the women of fistula, which otherwise would have left them incontinent. Because of modern medicine, the condition is virtually unknown in the developed world, but an estimated 2 million African women suffer from it.
Sims left Alabama for New York, where he founded a hospital for women, and later for Europe, where he treated Empress Eugenie of France and other members of European royalty.
Sims also was an early advocate of antiseptic practices in surgery, performed the first documented successful gallbladder surgery, and the first artificial insemination that produced a pregnancy. He died in 1884.
Combative and vain, Sims was both celebrated and criticized during his lifetime and entered the history books as a heroic figure. However, in the 1970s a new generation of scholars began questioning the ethics of, and motivations behind, Sims's experiments.
Anarcha Wescott, Sims's patient in the painting, endured 30 surgeries as Sims worked to perfect the technique. She was among about a dozen slaves on whom Sims operated repeatedly without anesthetic, which was just being developed but wasn't widely used at the time.
Some scholars have questioned whether the slaves gave or were capable of giving informed consent to the surgery, despite Sims's claim they eagerly sought his cures.
Questions raised among historians and considered by the committee were numerous: Was Sims sincerely concerned about the plight of the women or with his own glory as a medical innovator? Was he interested in relieving their suffering or in repairing them so they could return to working and producing children for their masters?
Then there are the questions raised by the painting itself. The slave Wescott lies on a table, partially disrobed, surrounded by the celebrated white men. Does the painting objectify Wescott? Is it an invasion of her privacy to hang such a painting in a room where cocktail party guests circulate?
UAB spokeswoman Turnbough said a committee of three doctors, formed after recent complaints, consulted nonmedical faculty, ethicists and historians of slavery, medicine and art.
"We had many difficult dialogues about that issue, and the consensus was that it should be removed," Turnbough said.
Now, hanging in the place of "Medical Giants" is an impressionistic still life of a flower vase.
L. Lewis Wall, a Washington University surgeon, has just written a paper for the Journal of Medical Ethics countering the charges made against Sims and saying they fail to appreciate the fistula condition for which Sims designed a cure.
In his autobiography, Sims said he discussed the options with the slave women and they gave their consent. He trained the women to assist him in the surgery on one another. Understanding the condition the women faced makes it easier to understand why they would be willing to endure the surgeries, Wall said.
Wall has visited Birmingham and has seen the "Medical Giants" painting. He won't give his opinion on the removal of the painting, but he wants the plight of women today to be remembered.
"It isn't a masterpiece of modern painting," Wall said. "I really don't give a hoot about Sims. I am very passionately concerned about the plight of fistula patients."