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Targeted Central Park statue’s subject has complicated history

A Central Park statue of 19th Century physician

A Central Park statue of 19th Century physician L. Marion Sims, considered the father of modern gynecology, is the target of demands for its removal because he operated on slave women without anesthesia. Photo Credit: David Handschuh

Medical historians consider Dr. J. Marion Sims — memorialized in bronze and perched since 1934 atop a regal granite monument in Central Park — the father of modern gynecology.

New York state and city politicians, including City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, see a far less noble embodiment — a practitioner of painful experimental surgery on female African-American slaves.

And like political and community leaders in other American cities who are reconsidering the 21st century merits of monuments from a less equitable past, Mark-Viverito and others want Sims’ statue removed.

Last month, the speaker demanded that the bust, which sits on the park’s eastern edge in the heart of Museum Row, come down because, she said, Sims operated in “sadistic” fashion on female slaves without the use of anesthesia and without their consent.

The furor over the Sims memorial comes against a backdrop of controversy over other city statues and monuments, notably that of Christopher Columbus. Mayor Bill de Blasio will soon appoint a commission to review city statues.

For Sims, whose statue was defaced over the weekend, history is certainly complicated.

Dr. L. Lewis Wall, a prominent physician, medical ethicist and historian at Washington University in St. Louis, has stepped forward to defend Sims, saying the doctor has to be judged by medical ethics at a time when slavery was legal and not through a 21st century prism.

“Bad history,” was how Wall characterized the recent furor over Sims

Mark-Viverito didn’t respond to questions about Sims’ history.

But State Senator Brian Benjamin (D-Manhattan), said in an interview Thursday that he doesn’t view Sims as a criminal and he believes the physician did some good things for medicine, although his history is “murky.”

Because he experimented with slaves — and not white women — perhaps it is best to move Sims’ statue from a neighborhood where so many women of color live, Benjamin said, because it sends the wrong message about African-American women.

On the issue of anesthesia, Wall noted in a telephone interview, ether wasn’t even demonstrated in the U.S. until October 1846, about a year after Sims began operating on the women for traumatic vesicovaginal fistulas through the summer of 1849.

Thus, it’s unfair to criticize him for not using it, Wall said. The fistulas are injuries to the soft tissue of the pelvis brought on by prolonged, obstructed labor. The affliction often led to death of the fetus and left the women incontinent. The condition was considered incurable, Wall said.

“This was not a trivial injury,” Wall said. He believes the slave women were willing, if not enthusiastic participants. Their only option, he said, was to have Sims operate or live “wet and miserable and soaked in urine.”

While some modern critics claim Sims didn’t have the women’s consent to operate, Sims reported in an 1854 medical journal article of three cases where he had permission.

In an email, City Councilman Robert Cornegy Jr. (D-Brooklyn), said after 1846, Sims should have started using anesthesia promptly, but apparently didn’t until the 1850s.

Wall pointed out that for years anesthesia was considered risky since its safety hadn’t been established.

Cornegey also questioned why Sims didn’t experiment on white women, asking “could it be because they were unlikely to consent?”

However, Wall stated that Sims did note that he later operated on white women as well without anesthesia.

After Sims had success in treating the fistulas, some of the slave women actually assisted him as he performed operations on other slaves in a small clinic in Alabama, noted Wall.

Instead of the controversy over statues, Wall thinks that the public should be more concerned about the estimated 1 million women in Africa and other impoverished areas suffering today from vaginal fistulas.

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