The first patient to endure James Marion Sims’s experimental surgery in 1845 was named Lucy. Lucy, an enslaved black woman in Alabama, remained on her hands and knees on top of a table for more than an hour as Sims sought to repair a hole between her bladder and vagina without giving her any anesthesia, which was not widely used then.
Lucy quickly developed blood poisoning after Sims tried to fashion a catheter out of a piece of sponge, which Sims later admitted was “stupid” of him.
“Lucy’s agony was extreme,” Sims wrote in his 1884 autobiography. “I thought that she was going to die.”
But Lucy didn’t die. She, and at least six other enslaved women, endured four years of experimental surgeries before Sims finally perfected the procedure, seeking to cure what’s called a vesico-vaginal fistula. His success earned him the moniker “father of modern gynecology.”
But as the years went by that success was overshadowed by the fact that he earned it on the backs of slaves.
That’s the reason his statue in Central Park was removed Tuesday — 124 years after it was erected with great fanfare directly across from the New York Academy of Medicine.
New York City’s Public Design Commission voted unanimously Monday to get rid of it. Crews arrived Tuesday morning with a forklift to take it from its pedestal as onlookers cheered, “Marion Sims is not our hero.” The bronze statue will be relocated to a Brooklyn cemetery, where Sims is buried.
Sims’s statue is the first to come down in New York City in the aftermath of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, which left one counterprotester dead. Amid ongoing nationwide protests of memorials commemorating the Confederacy and its leaders, Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered a complete review of the city’s own inventory of monuments.
The memorial celebrating Sims drew considerable protest and in August was vandalized with the word “RACIST” scrawled across it in red paint. The New York Academy of Medicine, which respected Sims and invited his lectures more than a century earlier, joined in the call for his statue’s removal. The academy did not even support the statue’s relocation.
“While we are pleased with the recommendation to remove the statue from our East Harlem neighborhood, relocating to another public venue still recognizes the work of J. Marion Sims without acknowledging his egregious misuse of power in conducting surgical experiments on enslaved black women,” Judith A. Salerno, the academy’s president, said in a January statement, after the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers announced its support for the statue’s relocation.
Sims is best known for his invention of the vaginal speculum and for the surgical procedure for curing a vesico-vaginal fistula. Often caused by problems during childbirth, a hole develops between the bladder and the vagina, leading to uncontrollable urinating and ongoing discomfort and pain.
For four years, from 1845 to 1849, Sims performed experimental surgeries on slaves he kept in a “little hospital of eight beds, for taking care of negro patients,” in his back yard in Montgomery, Ala., as he explained in his autobiography.
On the issue of consent, Sims claimed in one case that a patient named Betsey “willingly consented” to one examination, but that was before his experiments began. At least one gynecologist who has defended Sims cited an article he wrote in 1855, in which he said his patients all gave consent.
But in his autobiography, Sims described the arrangement this way: “I made this proposition to the owners of the negroes: If you will give me Anarcha and Betsey for experiment, I agree to perform no experiment or operation on either of them to endanger their lives, and will not charge a cent for keeping them, but you must pay their taxes and clothe them. I will keep them at my own expense.”
He was so convinced that he had figured out a surgical panacea for the fistula that he invited “about a dozen” doctors to observe the first surgery he performed on Lucy in 1845. The doctors watched in anticipation as Sims prodded Lucy, only for the experiment to fail miserably.
Nevertheless, the experiments continued, as Sims obsessively sought to perfect his procedure and his tools, including silver sutures used to stitch the hole between the bladder and vagina. Eventually, his assistants gave up on him. The enslaved women — “confident” that he could heal them, he wrote — began assisting him themselves. Some fellow doctors, aware of Sims’s repeated failures, wrote to him cautioning that perhaps he should stop the experiments.
“I must tell you frankly that with your young and growing family it is unjust to them to continue in this way, and carry on this series of experiments,” Dr. Rush Jones, Sims’s brother-in-law, said in one letter. “You have no idea what it costs you to support a half-dozen n‑‑‑‑‑‑, now more than three years, and my advice to you is to resign the whole subject and give up.”
But Sims didn’t. Not until after his 30th surgery on Anarcha, when his procedure finally worked.
“Dr. Sims, ‘the father of gynaecology,’ was the first doctor to perfect a successful technique for the cure of vesico-vaginal fistula,” a social work professor at the University of Alabama wrote in one 1993 paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics, “yet despite his accolades, in his quest for fame and recognition, he manipulated the social institution of slavery to perform human experimentations, which by any standard is unacceptable.”
When New York City erects Sims’s statue in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, its new pedestal will be smaller, the New York Times reported. The Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers has pledged to include a plaque next to the statue that explains Sims’s “legacy of non-consensual medical experimentation on women of color broadly and Black women specifically that Sims has come to symbolize.”
To “honor the sacrifice of the women whose bodies were used in the name of scientific advancement,” the plaque will also include the names of the women who endured Sims’s experiments: Lucy, Anarcha, Betsey.
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