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Science journal Nature ventures into racist medical atrocities — and regrets it

When a statue in New York of a famous surgeon known to have committed medical atrocities was vandalized with the word “RACIST” last month, the scientific journal Nature jumped at the opportunity join the debate over America’s controversial monuments.

It didn’t go well.

On Monday, Nature published a staff editorial titled “Removing statues of historical figures risks whitewashing history.” It argued, in effect, that public monuments of people with “questionable records on human rights” should be left in place, lest the country lose sight of the lessons they offered. As a remedy, the journal proposed installing plaques noting the controversy or erecting statues of equal size dedicated to the victims.

But after a wave of outrage online, much of it from the scientific community, the prestigious publication revised parts of its editorial and apologized for the “offensive and poorly worded” article.

“It did not accurately convey our intended message and it suggested that Nature is defending statues of scientists who have done grave injustice to minorities and other people,” an editor’s note read. “Our position is that any such memorials that are allowed to stand should be accompanied by context that makes the injustice clear and acknowledges the victims.”

Few were satisfied with the revisions or the apology. Nature acknowledged that “many people disagree with the article more fundamentally” and promised to publish some of the criticisms in the coming days.

Nature’s editorial was prompted in part by recent attacks on the late J. Marion Sims, the “father of gynecology” who is known to have performed surgical experiments on enslaved black women without anesthesia. The journal noted that a bronze likeness of Sims in Central Park had been defaced at the end of August and that activists were calling for its removal.

The editorial also brought up Thomas Parran, the U.S. surgeon general who oversaw the Tuskegee experiments in which researchers spent decades tracking hundreds of black men who had syphilis without treating them for the disease or telling them they were infected. A hall at the University of Pittsburgh is named after him and, until 2013, so was an award from the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association.

Nature suggested that the country might be better off judging historical figures “by their achievements rather than by modern norms.”

“Sims was far from the only doctor experimenting on slaves in 1849, despite the fact that the abolitionist movement was well under way in the United States. And his achievements saved the lives of black and white women alike,” read the editorial, which was unsigned. “But some historians argue that his experiments could have been considered unethical even for his time.”

The editorial seemed to draw little attention until Wednesday when Nature tweeted a link to it. Outrage snowballed quickly on social media, as it tends to:

In one particularly forceful critique, the Atlantic’s Ross Anderson wrote that the arguments put forth by Nature’s editors were little different from those offered by President Trump and other defenders of Confederate monuments. He also noted that Nature had declined to discuss whether there was a case to be made about whether Sims’s or Parran’s achievements outweighed their gruesome mistreatment of their black subjects.

“You can understand why they’d be gun-shy about making that case,” Anderson wrote. “For one, the two figures’ sins are not private indiscretions, incidental to their professional reputations. Their treatment of black men and women as subhuman subjects was core to their work. They profited from these experiments, and in the field’s highest currency: scientific prestige.”

By the end of the day, Nature was backpedaling. In addition to apologizing for the story, it changed the title to read “Science must acknowledge its past mistakes and crimes.”

But the ghost of Nature’s original point was still there.

In one section, the editorial mentioned how after World War II Germany had left alone some of the streets and monuments that were named after Nazi collaborators. It also discussed how French and Canadian officials had renamed streets and parks that were originally named after a Nobel Laureate who supported eugenics. Nature seemed to take issue with that decision.

“Erasing names,” the editorial read, “runs the risk of whitewashing history.”

By way of example, Nature argued that Germany’s Max Planck Society, formerly known as the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, deserved credit for publicly acknowledging “that many prominent members worked with the Nazi regime and that the society did not help to protect Jewish scientists.”

That characterization, however, is an understatement. During World War II, the society conducted unethical brain tissue research on untold numbers of disabled people who were systematically killed under the Third Reich’s racial cleansing program, as Science Magazine reported in January. The society has repeatedly apologized for its actions and at one point destroyed many of the Nazi-era brain tissue samples in its archives. It is working on a three-year project to identify the victims, according to Science.

Martin Keck, one of the Max Planck Society’s clinic directors, described the project in a way that Nature might find ironic.

“This is not only about ‘forgotten specimens,” Keck told Science, “but the apparent whitewashing of the [society’s] darkest history.”

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