August 24, 2017

A NYC statue honors a doctor who experimented on slaves. Should it go?

Daily Briefing

    Hundreds are calling on New York City officials to remove statue of a James Marion Sims, the so-called "father of gynecology" whose developments came in part from nonconsensual experimentation on black female slaves—echoing a broader debate on how the medical field should reckon with its past practices.

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    Who was James Marion Sims?

    Sims, who died in 1883, is credited with developments in the surgical repair of fistulas—tears that can occur in women as a result of childbirth complications or pelvic surgery.  

    Sims developed his technique through operating on enslaved black women without anesthesia and without their consent, according to USA Today. He allegedly performed experimental operations on at least 10 enslaved women with vesicovaginal fistula. According to a 1993 report in the Journal of Medical Ethics, the women "were not asked if they would agree to such an operation … (and) they were in no way volunteers for Dr. Sims's research."

    Calls to remove statue grow louder

    Some New Yorkers have protested against the Sims statue for years, Melanie Eversley reports for USA Today. However, calls for its removal have gained traction following violence at a white nationalist rally in Virginia earlier this month over a Confederate statue, the Associated Press reports.

    As of Wednesday, more than 600 people had signed a petition on Change.org that calls for the statue's removal. The petition reads, "While we value and learn from the pioneering accomplishments of the founders of modern medicine, we cannot overlook the brutality of Sims' methods." It continues, "It is disturbing that we continue to honor Sims by keeping a statue of him in the shadow of the New York Academy of Medicine. The savagery of his practices require that the statue be taken down."

    City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who wants the statue removed, on Monday said, "We must send a definitive message that the despicable acts of J. Marion Sims are repugnant and reprehensible."

    Separately, Eva Delappe, a first-year medical student at the nearby Icahn School of Medicine, said she thinks the statue should be taken down, adding that "it's horrendous that it's still here."

    However, Mary Turner, a nearby resident, said people should note that Sims was working based on the norms of the time to help save others. "It's still part of what happened," Turner added. "Maybe it's better to be reminded of what happened than to bury it."

    The controversy echoes other debates that have engulfed the medical field as it has reckoned with how past doctors and scientists, including many trailblazers in their fields, employed methods now considered unacceptable.

    According to USA Today, similar flashpoints include the infamous Tuskegee experiment, in which researchers withheld treatment for syphilis from African-American men so they could study the disease, and the widespread use of Henrietta Lacks' cancer cells in research without her consent. 

    City assembling commission

    New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said following violence in Virginia that New York City would establish a task force to review "symbols of hate" on public property and discuss whether to remove them.

    Ben Sarle, a deputy press secretary to de Blasio, said the Sims statue "is obviously one of the statues that will get very immediate attention because there’s been tremendous concern raised about it" (Rege, Becker's Hospital Review, 8/22; AP/ABC News, 8/22; Eversley, USA Today, 8/22).


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