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Home / US / "Father of Gynecology" who experimented with enslaved women, no longer on pedestal in NYC: The Two-Way: NPR

"Father of Gynecology" who experimented with enslaved women, no longer on pedestal in NYC: The Two-Way: NPR



A statue of surgeon J. Marion Sims is taken off his pedestal in Central Park on Tuesday. A board from New York City decided to postpone the controversial statue, as many of Sim's medical breakthroughs were due to experimenting with enslaved black women without anesthesia.

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A statue of surgeon J. Marion Sims is taken off his pedestal in Central Park on Tuesday. A New York council decided to postpone the controversial statue, as many Sims' medical breakthroughs were made by experimenting with enslaved black women without anesthesia.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

New York City has removed a statue of J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century gynecologist who experimented with enslaved women, from a pedestal in Central Park

The statue is taken to a cemetery in Brooklyn where Sims, sometimes called the "father of gynecology" is buried. A new information board will be added to both the empty pedestal and the relocated statue, and the city will commission new works of art to reflect the issues posed by Sim's legacy.

The statue from the 1890s was installed opposite the New York Academy of Medicine in 1934, with a plaque that praised Sim's "brilliant performance". Sims perfected a technique for repairing vesicovaginal fistulas, which are holes between the vagina and the bladder or rectum, by repeatedly performing painful experimental surgeries on enslaved black women without anesthesia.

In January, a mayor's commission, investigating the controversial New York City monuments, overwhelmingly recommended that the Sims statue be relocated. Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed.

The Public Design Commission unanimously approved the decision Monday, and less than a day later, the statue came down.

A small crowd watched and cheered, New York Daily News reports, with a viewer "Out of Head!"

Harlem resident Mercy Wellington spoke with the Daily News about the statue's reputation.

"I feel that my ancestors can rest," she told the newspaper.

"Every day I passed this statue and I saw it up there, I felt personally disrespectful … It's a historic moment for me, and it's an emotional moment just feeling that the right thing is being done.

A woman is standing next to the empty pedestal on which stood a statue of J. Marion Sims. Several groups demanded the removal of the statue, which sat on a pedestal and praised its achievements as "brilliant," without recognizing the women who had to endure his painful experiments.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images


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Spencer Platt / Getty Images

A woman is standing next to the empty pedestal on which stood a statue of J. Marion Sims. Several groups demanded the removal of the statue, which sat on a pedestal and praised its achievements as "brilliant," without recognizing the women who had to endure his painful experiments.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Vanessa Northington Gamble, a medical doctor and medical historian at George Washington University, spoke with NPR's Hidden Brain Podcast in 2016 for an episode about Sims' Legacy.

She explained that fistula treatment was developed in the 1840s. Sims experimented for years with enslaved women without anesthesia. He did operations on a number of women, but we only know the names of three: Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey.

"These women were property," says Gamble. "These women could not agree, these women also had a value for slavers for production and reproduction – how much work they could do in the field, how many enslaved children they could produce, and through these fistulas they could not continue the birth and also have difficulty working. "

The operations that were repeatedly repeated on the same women were painful; Sims described how Lucy cried and said she felt like she was dying. Sims also says that the women wanted the surgery because they wanted to be healed. As Gamble states, we only have his word for it.

After perfecting the technique in black women, without anesthesia, Sims has offered it to white women. "But he treated white women with numbness," Gamble notes.

This 19th-century story is found in contemporary medical practice, Hidden Brain notes, "Black patients continue to receive fewer painkillers for fractures and cancer, and black children are less on painkillers than white children Appendicitis One reason is that many people mistakenly believe that blacks have thicker skin than whites and feel less pain. "

And in America, black women are far more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than white women today

The poet Bettina Judd drew on her own experiences when a black woman saw doctors appraising her pain as she sustained a nagging torso of the ovaries while contemplating the experiences of Lucy, Betsey, and Anarcha

Poems with Hidden Brain underneath "Betsey invents the speculum":

"By introducing the curved handle of the spoon, I saw everything, as never before had a human seen" from The story of my life by J. Marion Sims

I bent in another way
to let the body open …

Sims invents the speculum
I invent the whimpering

that when one thinks of
looking the other way

that must make the discovery here.

The statue, driven away in a park department truck on Tuesday, will be buried at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where Sims is buried.

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The statue, taken away Tuesday in a Park Department truck, is relocated to the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where Sims is buried.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The "embarrassing imbalance in power" between Sims and the enslaved women played a key role in the recommendation of the New York Mayors' Conference to remove the statue.

The group considered more than 800 other monuments, statues and markings; the Sims are the only one who has overwhelmingly led them to move.

The Commission has set out its reasoning in a long report. It emphasized that billing history does not just mean removing controversial statues, but also "representing overlooked stories." In some cases, monuments could be improved through "recontextualization" to provide more information about the depicted historical figure.

But in the case of the Sims statue, the commission overwhelmingly urged them to take them down from their literal pedestal – and commissioning – another type of monuments, such as one dedicated to colored women in science and medicine.

"There is no question about the abuse of women experimenting," wrote the commission. Yet, in the pose of the statue and the adult prose on its plaque, "there is no ambiguity in the glorification of the monument."

In addition, "the surrounding district of East Harlem / El Barrio consists mostly of color communities." They demand that the statue be mined for decades, the commission noted.

In addition to the monument in New York, Sims is remembered with statues in South Carolina and Montgomery, Ala.


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