East Harlem statue of unethical M.D. should be the next ‘hero’ to fall, says community board

August 21, 2017

Statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims in Central Park. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

As protest and debate sweep the nation over the toppling of statues, centered around well-known Confederate names like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, here in New York City a lesser-known monument to medicine is in the spotlight for its offensive nature. The New York Times reports that Manhattan Community Board 11 is calling upon the city to remove an East Harlem statue of a white, southern doctor, Dr. James Marion Sims. Regarded as the father of modern gynecology, Sims achieved his success by performing experiments on slaves without consent and without anesthesia.

Bust of Dr. J. Marion Sims in Columbia, South Carolina. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Looking down over Fifth Avenue and East 103rd Street in East Harlem, across from the venerable New York Academy of Medicine, the imposing statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims posed hand at breast in the hero’s classic stance occupies a tall pedestal of stone. You may–or you may not–know of Dr. Sims, the aforementioned physician accorded paternal status in a field that has seen no shortage of it. It is well known that the same doctor’s fame unquestionably arrived at the expense of enslaved black women on whom he performed surgery without anesthesia or informed consent. You can find out more about Dr. Sims here, with the vague caveat that, “in the mid 19th century, gynecology was not a robustly developed field.“

In all of the doctor’s well-documented experimental research in developing a successful surgery to correct vesicovaginal fistula, a post-childbirth condition that plagued a significant number of women, the fact remains that the research was conducted on slaves brought to him by their masters, and without anesthetic, which was in general use at the time. Only when he determined the surgery to be a success did Dr. Sims perform it on white women, using anesthetic.

The accusation, then, is that Dr. J. Marion Sims achieved his professional laurels only at the expense of vulnerable populations. The doctor’s beliefs were also in line with many professionals of the day who favored gynecological cures–from ovary removal to hysterectomy and clitoridectomy–for various emotional shortcomings in women of all races. And there’s the fact that we even had slaves at all. But there’s no “slave owner” statue in East Harlem.

The Times quotes residents and elected officials, among them Diane Collier, chair of Community Board 11 which includes the offending effigy. The Community Board has been in discussion with the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation about the wording of addenda that could be added to the statue in explanation, or perhaps apology. In June of 2016 the board went with “take it down.”

Marina Ortiz, a local preservationist who has been leading a campaign to depose the statue, feels it is a daily reminder of the suffering of African-Americans and Puerto Ricans in the 20th century in the name of medical progress. “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.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a 90-day review of possible “symbols of hate on city property.” City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito sent the mayor a letter urging him to include the Sims statue in his review. The Parks Department has yet to respond to the Community Board’s request to remove the statue.

Another controversial statue, “Civic Virtue,” which once stood near Queens Borough Hall showing a muscular male hero towering over two voluptuous women (who symbolized, of course, vice) was moved to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Collier considers that location for a moment as a resting place for the dodgy doc. “You know, Marion Sims is buried at Green-Wood.”

[Via NY Times]


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