THE NEW CRITERION, September 2018
On the ignominious removal of a Central Park monument.
Like something out of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, a black sign now appears in place of a statue that had stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street for over eighty years.
By order of Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYC Parks has relocated the statue of Dr. James Marion Sims to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where Sims is buried. Plans are being developed to commission a new monument on this site.
So a statue is gone from Manhattan, its online record wiped clean. James who? Doctor of what? Few noticed its presence; fewer now may notice its absence. The handful who wanted it gone—“by order of”—were louder than the many who did not care whether or not it stayed. And most are fine to leave the story there. But in an era out to prove its revolutionary impermanence, a case should be made for the history of a forgotten figure and the permanence of his small monument. The past deserves its say.
In defense of a statue—
The Central Park monument to J. Marion Sims was, until recently, one of a string of statues and plaques that adorns the park’s outer wall. Like the Ninety-first Street memorial to William T. Stead, a journalist who distinguished himself for bravery by sacrificing his life during the sinking of the Titanic, and the 101st Street monument to Arthur Brisbane, the “editor and Patriot,” the Sims statue existed in the civic background, largely overlooked, if not entirely forgotten, by the city that hosted it.
That changed on April 17, 2018. In a public event organized by the Mayor of the City of New York, as protesters, surrounded by a ring of media trucks, chanted “Marion Sims is not our hero,” a forklift raised the bronze statue from its base and deposited it on the back of a Parks Department pickup. With its head covered by a blue tarp, a yellow cable wrapped around its neck, the statue rode off to the shouts of the crowd and the clicking of the cameras. The statue has not been seen since.
Following the deadly August 2017 conflagration in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a national reckoning with monuments to the Confederacy, few might have predicted that Dr. Sims, the “father of modern gynecology,” would be the New Yorker ultimately destined for ignominious denouement. But such are the capricious politics of our modern iconoclasm and the unexpected opportunities it presents for displays of scolding and shame. Following a widening pattern of censorship, one that has quickly moved beyond Confederate memorials, a fever call for “social justice” has sought to redress history through public acts of effacement. Born out of a toxic relationship with the past, this frenzy should be alarming to anyone concerned with the intricacies of history and its record in material culture. In the case of Sims, the public verdict, issued without representation for the defendant, may have dishonored the legacy of an innocent and even heroic man.
Surgeon and philanthropist. Founder of the Woman’s Hospital State of New York. His brilliant achievement carried the fame of American surgery throughout the entire world.”
The inscription, carved into a roundel, is still in evidence beneath the cut bolts of what remains of Sims’s monument. It speaks to the historical sentiment behind his memorialization. Created by Ferdinand Freiherr von Miller in 1892, the bronze statue of Sims was first erected in Bryant Park. In 1934, the statue moved uptown to a new base facing the New York Academy of Medicine, which has occupied its current six-story building across Fifth Avenue since 1926.
In the case of Sims, the public verdict, issued without representation for the defendant, may have dishonored the legacy of an innocent and even heroic man.
That Sims was a pioneering surgeon in the area of women’s health is beyond dispute. His innovative surgeries became the basis for curing what were thought to be irreparable reproductive injuries, paving the way for the modern therapeutic practices and instruments that today benefit women worldwide. “In recognition of his services in the cause of science & mankind,” as a second roundel still reads, “awarded highest honors by his countrymen & decorations from the governments of Belgium, France, Italy, Spain & Portugal.”
The challenge for Sims has been our interpretation of his early research work around his home in Montgomery, Alabama. Between 1845 and 1849, Sims performed experimental surgeries to repair the vesicovaginal fistulae of twelve enslaved women, three of whom we know from Sims’s records by first name: Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey. This surgery was conducted without anesthesia on a population for whom the law did not compel personal consent. In recent decades, medical historians have cast these actions as unethical, if not abhorrent. With a record of experimentation on slaves, without anesthetic, Sims can easily come across as a Dr. Mengele of the antebellum South, and therefore ripe for condemnation.
Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics in 1993, Durrenda Ojanuga Onolemhemhen calls Sims’s surgeries on “powerless Black women” a “classic example of the evils of slavery and the misuse of human subjects for medical research.” In particular, Sims has been labeled an “anesthetic racist” for not practicing proper pain management on his enslaved patients, even as he performed multiple unsuccessful surgeries before perfecting his operating procedures.
When New York mayor Bill de Blasio convened a special commission last year to review “city art, monuments, and markers,” the panel arrived at similar conclusions. Arguing that “there is no question about the abuse of the women he experimented upon,” the commission wrote that Sims “has come to represent a legacy of oppressive and abusive practices on bodies that were seen as subjugated, subordinate, and exploitable in service to his fame.”
The commission’s recommendation to remove the statue from a neighborhood that “largely consists of communities of color, predominantly Latinx [sic] and Black” was met with the forklift a day later—a record turnaround for city work. The panel had served its political purpose—giving the mayor a pass on similarly controversial yet much more popular city monuments, including those of Christopher Columbus and Theodore Roosevelt, by targeting a lesser-known work.
While protest groups, including an organization called the “Black Youth Project 100,” had been staging graphic spectacles in front of Sims—young women have appeared wearing hospital gowns soaked in fake blood—“no person or group wrote or testified to request that the Sims monument remain in its current location.” By this, the commission therefore showed that the removal of Sims (unlike the Italian Columbus) would not upset a large bloc of city voters.
Yet, there are researchers who have long proposed a counter-narrative to the condemnation of Sims. Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics in 2006, L. Lewis Wall, a doctor in the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, one who has been honored for his work on behalf of African women with vesicovaginal fistulae, offers a different understanding of Sims’s achievements. Dr. Wall notes the horrific long-term effects of vesicovaginal fistula, a tragic condition that results from crushing complications of labor and fetal death, and leaves a woman with a permanent hole between bladder and vagina, resulting in a loss of urinary and often fecal control and a befouling of the reproductive organs.
Records maintain that Sims did, in fact, gain patient consent for his procedures, argues Wall. Moreover, the sensitive nature of the surgery would have required a patient’s willingness to proceed. The surgeries also had a known therapeutic outcome—curing, for the first time, a horrific long-term affliction. As for the charge of “anesthetic racism,” it should be noted that the use of anesthetic ether was not first demonstrated until October 16, 1846, in Boston, a year after Sims began his operations in Alabama. Even then, its adoption was not immediately universal, and it carried its own complications; surgeons trained before its advancement often continued to practice without it, as Sims did later on both his black and white patients.
Taken as a whole, such an interpretation portrays Sims not as a monster, profiting off of sadistic experiments on “the Black body,” but as a surgeon who championed corrective intervention for a disregarded and, indeed, powerless population suffering from severe injury. We may never know what truly happened in his operating theater, but given the ultimately therapeutic outcomes Sims achieved for Lucy, Anarcha, Betsey, and the other women he cured, it may very well be that the only subject in this story operated upon unjustly and without consent is the statue of J. Marion Sims.
Such a fate reminds me of the story of “The Burghers of Calais,” here turned into postmodern farce. Besieged by the English in 1346, so the legend goes in its telling by the medieval writer Jean Froissart, the city of Calais was spared by Edward III for giving up six of its leading citizens—“burghers,” or bourgeois—presumably destined for execution. Headed by the first volunteer, Eustache de Saint Pierre, these local leaders sacrificed themselves to save their city during the Hundred Years’ War.
Through a commission from the French port, Auguste Rodin famously immortalized these men in his sculpture of 1889, portraying the local leaders not as divine heroes composed on pedestals but as ordinary, downtrodden, and, indeed, besieged figures. Their clothes are torn and their bodies are bound as they carry out the keys, and their duty, for the salvation of the town.
Today, such sacrifice is not immortalized in bronze. Rather, it is bronze that must be immortalized in sacrifice. Pushed from the gates of Manhattan, the statue of J. Marion Sims was besieged, and finally sacrificed, for New York’s supposed racial salvation. Such symbolic destruction may serve to connote a phantom catharsis. But, ultimately, the only real-world change is the destruction of the symbol itself through a spectacle that may only perpetuate historical injustice. Unlike those burghers of Calais, the mayors, governors, and institutional leaders of today will eagerly wrong the symbols of the dead, along with the complexities of history, to protect, and enhance, their own righteous living.