A worker tosses a strap over the 19th century statue...

A worker tosses a strap over the 19th century statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims in New York's Central Park. Credit: AP / Mark Lennihan

The war over problematic monuments has claimed its first casualty in New York City: The statue of J. Marion Sims, the 19th Century gynecological and cancer surgeon, has been removed from its Central Park location by decision of the City Council.

Once hailed as a medical and humanitarian pioneer, Sims is now denounced as a racist butcher who perfected his craft through barbaric experiments on black female slaves.

The moral reassessment of America’s past is an essential part of our progress, but are we moving from a simplistic idealization of past figures to an equally simplistic demonization?

There is no question that Sims’ life and work raise difficult moral issues. Born in South Carolina, he set up a medical practice in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1840, specializing in surgery and gynecology.

In 1845-49, Sims worked on developing a surgical procedure to repair vesico-vaginal fistulas, a crippling complication from childbirth that results not only in severe pain but in incontinence. His patients-test subjects were slaves afflicted with the condition. The first of them endured 30 operations before the surgery was successful. None of the women received anesthesia.

The surgical breakthrough eventually benefited countless women. Sims, who later moved to New York and was president of the American Medical Association in 1876-77, was a pioneer in other ways as well. He founded the first women’s hospital in the United States and played a key role in establishing the nation’s first cancer hospital at a time when many hospitals refused to admit cancer patients in the mistaken belief that the disease was contagious. He pioneered the use of the speculum and artificial insemination.

To Sims’ modern-day detractors, such as Atlantic magazine writer Adam Serwer, the physician’s achievements were built on the bodies of black women who were treated as chattel. Recent headlines have referred to Sims as “the surgeon who experimented on slaves,” making him sound like the American version of Dr. Joseph Mengele, the infamous Nazi who performed horrific experiments on concentration-camp prisoners.

Credit: Charles Eckert

But the narrative of Sims’ villainy omits many complicated facts. For instance, Sims, himself a slave owner, unquestionably shared many of his cultural milieu’s racist beliefs. Yet in his memoirs, he wrote about his slave patients with surprising respect, even praising their “heroism and bravery.” He also asserted that he always obtained the women’s full consent — though, of course, it is difficult to see such consent as particularly meaningful when the women were powerless. While some petitions for the removal of the Sims monument asserted that he did not use anesthesia because he believed black people were insensitive to pain, he wrote sympathetically about the “extreme agony” endured by an early patient.

The reality is that at the time of Sims’ experiments, anesthesia was still in its infancy and was regarded as risky. Initially, Sims did not use it when operating on well-to-do white patients, either.

Serwer writes that Sims’ experimentation on slaves cannot be separated from his achievements any more than the courage and honor of Confederate soldiers can be separated from their pro-slavery cause. But that analogy is flawed. Sims’ goal was not to uphold slavery, but to find a treatment for an agonizing and humiliating affliction. It is virtually certain that he would have found willing subjects even in a non-slave society.

Perhaps, instead of being moved to Sims’ burial place in Brooklyn, the statue should have been supplemented with a plaque honoring his first patients, Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey. It would have made for a richer and fuller understanding of history.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.