Council Speaker Urged to Remove Statue of Doctor Who Experimented on Slaves

By Jeff Mays on May 7, 2014 7:00am 

 Members of the East Harlem community want City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to use her influence to have the statue of J. Marion Sims, a doctor who operated on slaves without anesthesia, removed.
Members of the East Harlem community want City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to use her influence to have the statue of J. Marion Sims, a doctor who operated on slaves without anesthesia, removed.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — At the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 103rd Street stands a statue of J. Marion Sims. Regarded as the "father of modern gynecology," Sims conducted experiments on slave women without anesthesia.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has spoken out against the statue in the past, saying in 2011 that it serves as a constant reminder that slaves "were considered less than human."

Now, locals want her to use her influence to have the statue removed once and for all.

"As the former chair of the [Council] parks committee, she's in the best position now as speaker to move this forward and have the city respond to our concerns," said Marina Ortiz of East Harlem Preservation, which has called for the removal of the statue for years.

"There are a lot of people that have made great contributions to East Harlem, but he's not one of them."

CB11 recently passed resolutions calling for the statue to be removed.

"Everyone supports removing it, but no one has done anything to remove it," said Frances Mastrota, chairwoman of board's Environment, Open Space and Parks committee. "Everyone is dancing around the issue."

A spokesman for Mark-Viverito declined comment.

Sims developed a surgery to treat a serious condition called vesicovaginal fistula, which sometimes occurs during childbirth, and developed a speculum to aid in the surgery. He also opened the country's first hospital devoted to women.

However, Sims did not use anesthesia on the slave women he used as test subjects, operating on one woman at least 30 times. When Sims operated on white women using the techniques he had practiced on the slaves, those women were anesthetized.

Some have explained Sims' actions by citing the medical ethics of his times.

But Harriet Washington, author of "Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present," and the winner of the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, said her research revealed that medical mores of the time did require consent, and that some of Sims' contemporaries objected to his methods.

 J. Marion Sims developed a surgery to treat a serious condition called vesicovaginal fistula, which sometimes occurs during childbirth, Regarded as the "father of modern gynecology," Sims conducted experiments on slave women without anesthesia.
J. Marion Sims developed a surgery to treat a serious condition called vesicovaginal fistula, which sometimes occurs during childbirth, Regarded as the "father of modern gynecology," Sims conducted experiments on slave women without anesthesia.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

"He perfected the technique that helped millions of women, but not these women," Washington said.

Parks Department officials said they have no intention to remove the bronze and granite statue, which was dedicated in 1894, and instead are in the process of finalizing language they hope will present a historically accurate picture of Sims, acknowledging three of his known slave subjects.

Parks officials have spent months consulting with several academics to make sure the language is accurate and will share the proposed language with East Harlem residents and CB11 before fabricating the plaque, officials said.

Removing the statue would create a slippery slope, Parks officials said, opening up to debate the ethics and worthiness of hundreds of other statues across the city.

"It's important to us that the varying views are reflected in the language," said Larry Scott Blackmon, deputy commissioner for community outreach for the Parks Department. "We are trying to get as close to an accurate depiction of J. Marion Sims as possible."

Washington said she's not in favor of removing the statue of Sims, but believes one of equal stature should be erected for his three known slave subjects.

"Taking it down covers the fact that this statue has been lying to the people," said Washington.

CB11 chair Matthew Washington, who is not related to Harriet Washington, agreed.

"Having new language for the plaques is fine, but ultimately it's these women that deserve recognition for their sacrifices," he said. "That's most important."

Parks officials said they would be open to discussing the idea of another statue honoring the women on whom Sims experimented.

Debbie Quinones, a longtime East Harlem resident and member of CB11 said she's torn about whether the statue should come down because it might erase ugly truths from our past that need to be confronted. The statue raises the issue of whether concerns raised by people in neighborhoods such as East Harlem are taken seriously.

"We have these perceptions of new political clout, but the question is, 'Is it a reality?'" she said. "It demonstrates how issues past 96th Street continue to be ignored."

For Mastrota, the only resolution is to remove the statue.

"The First Lady of our country is a woman of color, as is the First Lady of our city," said Mastrota. "How can you have something like this in a community of color? "

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