On Tuesday, the statue of J. Marion Sims, a 19th century surgeon who performed experiments on enslaved women without anesthesia, was removed from New York City's Central Park. Following the massive protests and counter protests to protect a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, VA left one woman dead in 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio called for a review of "all symbols of hate" on all New York City public property. The statue will be moved to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where Sims is buried.
Sims, who has been lauded as the "father of American gynecology," is credited with the invention of the speculum, which is still used in gynecological exams today. But the advancements Sims made for modern medicine belie the methods he used to attain them: Sims often conducted surgical procedures on enslaved women he purchased as property, operating on some of the women up to 30 times, according to the Atlantic. Only three of the enslaved women Sims experimented on are known by name; Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey.
According to Deirdre Cooper Owens, a professor of history at Queens College and author of Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, conducting medical experiments on enslaved people wasn't uncommon in Sims' time. "He and his peers, before and after his 1840s experimental surgical period, regularly examined, treated, experimented, and sometimes healed black patients who were both free and enslaved," Owens told Refinery29. "There has not been a moment in U.S. history where famous and powerful white men have not been accorded respect and adoration, especially those who are credited with making. Sims is the rule and not the exception."
Although removing Sims' statue is symbolic acknowledgment of the sordid history of American medicine, Owens believes that the U.S. needs to do more to come to terms with "the legacy of Sims' work on vulnerable patient populations (U.S. black women) who still suffer higher rates of high-risk pregnancies, birth low-weight babies, and die more in childbirth and during postpartum than other racial/ethnic groups."
The stain of racial bias in medicine lives on in other ways, too. Studies have shown that medical professionals often hold false beliefs about biological differences between races when it comes to pain, believing Black people feel less pain than whites. This is something that Koritha Mitchell, associate professor of English at Ohio State University, believes can be attributed to Sims and other medical professionals of his time. "Studies show that black pain isn’t taken nearly as seriously as the pain of others. I dare say that Americans’ insistence upon over-sympathizing with white pain created the opioid epidemic," Mitchell told Refinery29.
Beyond taking down statues, Owens believes America has to do more work to right the wrongs of the past. "Shaping health policies, transforming medical education, and linking scholars, medical practitioners, activists, and artists to create new institutional responses to the maternal outcome crisis are ways society can eradicate the mistreatment so many black women, poor women, and immigrant women receive from some medical professionals and institutions," she said.
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