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Councilwoman Wants to Remove Statue of Doctor Who Operated on Slaves

By Jeff Mays | February 14, 2011 4:46pm | Updated on February 15, 2011 6:31am
The statue of J. Marion Sims.
The statue of J. Marion Sims.
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By Jeff Mays

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito is currently polling East Harlem residents to see if they are as offended as she is by a Central Park statue of a doctor who operated on slaves without anesthesia.

The statue of Dr. J. Marion Sims, who is considered the father of American gynecology, is located at 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue outside of Central Park. While Sims developed a surgery to treat a serious condition called vesicovaginal fistula, which sometimes occurs as a result of child birth, and also developed a speculum to assist in the surgery, he did not use anesthesia on the three slave women he tested his techniques on. He operated on one of the slave women at least 30 times.

After figuring out the treatment, Sims, conducted the surgery on Caucasian women but used anesthesia.

In a letter to the Department of Parks and Recreation, Mark-Viverito said that because the community she represented was mostly made up of people of color, the statue "serves as a constant reminder of the cruelty endured by women of color in our country's history." She asked for the statue to be removed and for the Parks Department to develop a protocol that would allow area residents to complain about statues they find to be inappropriate.

"While I do not dispute Dr. Sims's contributions to the field of gynecology, I find it grossly insensitive that his likeness is memorialized, given the means by which he achieved recognition in the scientific community," Mark-Viverito wrote.

Mark-Viverito said her ultimate goal was to have the statue removed. "The conversation has just started with the community and ongoing pressure is necessary," she said.

Mark-Viverito said she understood why the Parks Department might be reluctant to move the sculpture given the myriad of ethics issues that could be raised about many historical figures.

"This is like a Pandora's box. It could become a nightmare for them. I'm sure the Parks Department does not want to change 1,500 statues and monuments in its parks," Mark-Viverito said. "But it's not every community that is raising these issues. It's the idea that these individuals were considered less than human."

A spokesperson for the Parks Department said that while Sims's practices were "clearly abhorrent" there were many monuments that paid tribute to the African-American experience, including statues of Duke Ellington, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

"While the City does not remove art retroactively on the basis on content, we are adding an historical sign to address the complex and controversial history of Dr. J. Marion Sims's life and work," the spokesperson wrote in an e-mail.

The majority of East Harlem residents who responded to a poll that East Harlem Preservation has on its website agree with Mark-Viverito. So far, 61 percent of voters think the statue of Sims should be removed. Almost 16 percent, or 112 people, don't think it should be moved, and almost 23 percent of those who took the poll want more information before making a decision.