Let’s Honor the Mothers of Modern Gynecology

By: Katie Baiocchi, JD Candidate at Wake Forest University School of Law

Image from Pearson Museum, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine

In August, my Facebook News Feed was flooded with images of the violence and hate that descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, motivated directly by controversy surrounding the protest and subsequent removal of Confederate monuments across the South. However, during this tumultuous time, one particular post[1] caught my attention because the monument being protested was not one erected to honor Confederate soldiers, but rather to honor the “Father of Modern Gynecology.” Furthermore, the statue being protested was not located in the South like the others, but rather Central Park, in the heart of New York City. The statue at issue celebrates a man who mutilated the bodies of black women without their consent, rather than memorializing and honoring the brave young women who suffered at his hands. I was deeply moved by the image before me and immediately disgusted by the fact that I had lived in ignorance so long about the horrors performed at the hands of Dr. James Marion Sims.

Dr. James Marion Sims is known for inventing gynecological techniques we still use today; most notably he invented a surgical technique to repair vesicovaginal fistula.[2] Beginning in 1845 Dr. Sims developed a surgical technique to cure this taboo medical condition through experimentation on human subjects.[3] What makes Dr. Sims’ experimental techniques so horrific is that he used enslaved black women as human subjects for his research and because these women were considered to be property, they could not consent to these appalling procedures.[4] In fact, their owners were allowed to consent for them, owners with a strong financial interest in the success of these surgeries.[5] Even worse, Dr. Sims performed these surgical procedures on black women without anesthesia because of his belief that black women were not capable of feeling pain; however, the very real pain of Betsey, Anarcha, and Lucy are detailed in Dr. Sims’ many journals.[6] Not only did Dr. Sims violate these women without their consent, he also invited people to watch as he performed these experimental surgeries, further stealing the dignity of the women who were forced to partake in his research.[7] Dr. Sims performed 35 surgeries on one single human subject, Anarcha, before completing a single “successful” surgery.[8]

The origin of modern gynecology is entrenched in slavery and racism; though the statue’s honoring Dr. Sims tell a different story.[9] There is a statue dedicated to Dr. Sims in South Carolina that reads, “J. Marion Sims was the first Surgeon of the Ages in ministering to women, treating Empresses and Slaves alike.”[10] While it is true that Dr. Sims moved to New York and later performed several successful surgeries on white women, he did not attempt to perform these surgeries until he ensured they were safe by experimenting on Anarcha, and other enslaved black women, for four years.[11] Additionally, white women also received anesthesia during their surgeries.[12] Society has chosen to celebrate this man and erect statues in his honor, blind to the horrors he inflicted on innocent black women who did not consent to his brutish surgeries. The statues erected to honor Dr. Sims are strikingly silent on how he founded modern gynecology. While it is true that Dr. Sims contributed to modern medicine while making great strides in the field of gynecology, the question becomes, at what cost?

The image I originally saw on Facebook was that of the protest in front of the Dr. Sims’ statue in New York City; it is both striking and powerful. It was taken during a peaceful protest organized by the Black Youth Project 100, and featured Darializa Auila-Chevalier, Jewel Cadet, Alexis Yeboah Kodie, and Jamilah Felix, as the four young women staged in front of the statute sprayed with red to signify the pain these women felt after the experimental surgeries.[13] These women had the courage to stand in front of this statue and protest the celebration of this horrendous man; calling attention to a serious problem I was previously, and millions of Americans still are, unaware of. This ignorance is due to the fact that history was editorialized by white supremacists at the time it was recorded; in this very instance history was documented in such a way to honor a white man, despite his torture of black women. Systemic racism undoubtedly shaped the recording of history, leading to the very problem we face today, both misrepresentations and omissions in the monuments erected in America.

However, these brave women were not to first to protest this monument; East Harlem Preservation has been actively advocating for the removal of the monument since 2010.[14] Medical ethicists and historians alike have also called for monuments honoring Dr. Sims to be removed, or reconfigured as tributes to the enslaved women who endured the pain of his experiments.[15] Defenders of Dr. Sims argue that he was “simply a man of his time.”[16] However, even when Dr. Sims was practicing medicine, the medical community debated his controversial methods and openly objected to his experiments.[17] Critics argue “his use of enslaved black bodies as medical test subjects falls into a long, ethically bereft history of medical apartheid that includes the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and Henrietta Lacks.”[18]

Dr. Sims is celebrated because of his advancements to the world of modern gynecology for women as a whole, however, it is altogether ignored that these advancements were made possible by the literal blood, sweat, and tears of enslaved black women. Enslaved black women were used as human subjects in painful procedures without their consent in order to develop surgeries that could then be safely used on white women. While Dr. Sims discovered revolutionary techniques and undoubtedly made vast contributions to modern medicine, he is also a symbol of racism and oppression and yet he is still celebrated in the medical community as a trailblazer without reference to the horrific reality of his discoveries. The New York City statute sits directly across from the New York Academy of Medicine in Central Park, and another statute sits outside his former medical school in South Carolina, as if their purpose is to serve as an inspiration to those beginning their medical career. [19]

Monuments honoring Dr. Sims must be removed, and in their place statues should be erected to honor the innocent enslaved black women who were forced to be a part of Dr. Sims’ research. Statutes should honor Betsey, Lucy and Anarcha, and all the unnamed women Dr. Sims tortured in the name of medicine. The removal of these statues will not make us forget history; we still have books and museums for this. As Elsa Waithe, a Brooklyn native said, “We don’t have to keep monuments up. Monuments are meant to memorialize. Books exist, museums exist.”[20] However, even if it were true that the removal of historical monuments that perpetuate racism and white supremacy would somehow cause us to forget history, this will not occur here because new statues should be erected in their place. The difference being that these statues will tell the real story and honor the brave women who deserve to be honored. As they currently stand, the statues praising Dr. Sims are misleading, deceitful, and disrespectful to history, as they make no mention of the horrific practices that enabled him to become the “Father of Modern Gynecology.” As one protestor put it, “At best, J. Marion Sims was a racist man who exploited the institution of racism for his own gain.”[21] This is not a man who deserves reverence and celebration. This is not a man who should be memorialized. Rossanna Mercedes put it best, “Memorializing of imperialist slaveholders, murderers and torturers like J. Marion Sims is white supremacy.”[22]

In fact, on Friday, January 12, 2018, New York City announced that they would be moving the Central Park Monument based upon recommendations from the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers.[23] The statue honoring Dr. Sims will not only be relocated to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, but will also be altered to reflect the context of Dr. Sims’ medical discoveries.[24] The City plans to add plaques to the pedestal of the statue to “document the historical context of the legacy of medical experimentation on black women.”[25] Additionally, New York City has agreed to commission new artwork to reflect these exact issues, while also hosting dialogues discussing the history of medical experimentation on black women.[26] It appears as if New York City has finally realized that Dr. Sims is “a painful symbol of our nation’s troubling relationship with race and with our country’s insufficient efforts to right the wrongs of longstanding injustices.”[27] The City seems to be taking many different steps to contextual this historical statue while making efforts to educate the public beyond the monument.[28]  Again, the contributions that Dr. Sims made to modern gynecology cannot be denied, however, the reality of his horrific experimentation on enslaved black women who could not consent to his procedures can also no longer be denied, nor forgotten. It is time for South Carolina to come to this realization as well, and to move the beyond editorialized history their monument to Dr. Sims reflects by changing the monument to expose reality and to honor the women who were the “Mothers of Modern Gynecology.”

Katie Baiocchi is a third year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law from North Branford, Connecticut. Prior to attending law school, she received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Connecticut in Sociology with a concentration in Criminal Justice. Katie is a Symposium Editor on the Wake Forest Law Review and the Treasurer of the Wake Forest chapter of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund. Katie’s interest in bioethics began in law school after taking Human Reproduction and the Law with Professor Meghan Boone and both Bioethics and Law and Medicine with Professor Chris Coughlin. Katie has an interest in the bioethical dilemmas in organ transplantation and solving the ongoing organ transplant crisis in America; she also enjoys reading with her dog Pikachu.

[1] BYP 100, Facebook (Aug. 19, 2017), https://www.facebook.com/BYP100/photos/a.577719128946089.1073741828.576628419055160/1550909888293670/?type=3&theater.

[2] Brynn Holland, The ‘Father of Modern Gynecology’ Performed Shocking Experiments on Slaves, History (Aug. 29. 2017), http://www.history.com/news/the-father-of-modern-gynecology-performed-shocking-experiments-on-slaves. A vesicovaginal fistula is an “abnormal fistulous tract extending between the bladder and the vagina that allows the continuous involuntary discharge of urine into the vaginal vault.” John Spurlock, Vesicovaginal Fistula, MedScape (Mar. 1, 2016), https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/267943-overview.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology, NPR (Feb. 7, 2017),  http://www.npr.org/2017/02/07/513764158/remembering-anarcha-lucy-and-betsey-the-mothers-of-modern-gynecology. According to a study conducted at the University of Virginia, the misguided belief that black women do not feel pain is still believed today. Holland, supra note 2.

[7] Id.

[8] Remembering Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey: The Mothers of Modern Gynecology, NPR (Feb. 7, 2017),  http://www.npr.org/2017/02/07/513764158/remembering-anarcha-lucy-and-betsey-the-mothers-of-modern-gynecology.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Esha Ray Dennis Slattery, Protestors demand removal of Central Park statute of 19th century doctor who experimented on slave women, N.Y. Daily News (Aug. 20, 2017), http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/manhattan/protesters-slam-nyc-statue-doctor-experimented-slaves-article-1.3426690.

[14] Dr. Marion Sims Statute, East Harlem Preservation, https://eastharlempreservation.org/parks-community-gardens-public-space/dr-marion-sims-statue/ (last visited Oct. 18, 2017).

[15] Holland, supra note 2.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. See Steve Hendrix, When Henrietta Lacks had cervical cancer, it was a ‘death sentence.’ Her cells would help change that, The Washington Post (April 22, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/04/22/when-henrietta-lacks-was-diagnosed-with-cervical-cancer-it-was-a-death-sentence-her-cells-would-help-change-that/?utm_term=.3f8d750091a4 for a brief discussion on Henrietta Lacks, and the cells taken from her body without her consent. These “HeLa” cells led to numerous innovations in modern medicine, including vaccines that help prevent the disease that later caused her death.

[19] Id.

[20] Slattery, supra note 13.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Brendan Krisel, J. Marion Sims Statue To Be Moved From Central Park, Patch (Jan. 12, 2018), https://patch.com/new-york/central-park/j-marion-sims-statue-be-moved-central-park.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id. (quoting East Harlem City Councilwoman Diana Ayala).

[28] Id.

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