Why New York Must Remove Dr. James Marion Sims' Statue: Slavery, Racism and American Medicine

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The Good Doctor was very evil. Centralparknyc.org

The white supremacists, Neo Nazis and Klansmen with confederate flags, Swastika and other Nazi era paraphernalia some wearing tee shirts with quotations from Hitler, descended on Charlottesville on August 12/2017 in what was billed as a Unite the Right Rally. The night before the rally, was the torchlight march at the University of Virginia campus with participants chanting “Jews will not Replace US”.

The rally ostensibly called to protest the removal of confederate general Robert E Lee’s statue was more like a coming out party for the white extremist anti-Semites and racists, emboldened by the election of Donald Trump whose core support and loyalty comes from the alt right, a gathering place for the white supremacists. They were not disappointed in their president whose condemnation of the counter protesters, holding them equally accountable for the violence and  going out of his way to suggest there were many ‘good people’ among the white supremacists and neo Nazis, did not go unnoticed by them.

Charlottesville once again brought to the fore, the enduring legacy of slavery and racism which has yet to be confronted in a meaningful way by the white majority, stubbornly protecting the privilege that the institution of slavery has conferred on its descendants. Every segment of the white establishment was beneficiary in one way or another. Serious discussion of slavery and its legacy has been thwarted by fear of the need for restitution that such discussion and acknowledgement of culpability would inevitably bring. We know how the agricultural wealth of the South was built on slave labor. More and more revelations are coming to light that our most venerated institutions of higher learning such as Georgetown and Yale also profited from slavery. So did a number of businesses and industries in the North.

It is the medical profession however that had eluded a closer scrutiny of its cynical use of the institution of slavery, Jim Crow and the pervasive racism to further the fame and fortune of some of its luminaries. In her seminal work “Medical Apartheid”, Harriett Washington meticulously documents the human experimentation by prominent physicians of American medicine carried out on Blacks from the days of slavery to our time.

In an article in Mother Jones on Feb 24, 2014 titled “Did Slavery Create Modern Medicine”, Greg Grandin, Professor of History at NYU and author of the book “The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World” talks of the trans-Atlantic slave ships as "floating laboratories" where the high mortality enabled doctors to run research in controlled environment to study the course of a disease. Fast forward to the 20th Century Grandin quotes a doctor in 1940 as saying “the future of the negro lies more in the research laboratory than in the schools”.  Grandin goes on to quote another doctor-researcher in 1960 speaking at Tulane Medical School who said it was “cheaper to use Niggers than cats because they were everywhere and cheap experimental animals”

What came to be euphemistically known as the Mississippi Appendectomy was a widespread practice in the South of rendering Black women sterile without their knowledge during other surgery. The great civil rights fighter Fannie Lou Hamer was one such victim. This practice was not confined to the South only. Unnecessary hysterectomies were performed in the 1970s on poor Blacks and Puerto Ricans in the North so as to give doctors in training a chance to practice as Harriet Washington documented in her book.

The most notorious case of human experimentation was of course the Tuskegee Syphilis study funded by the US Public Health Service--399 Black men with syphilis were enrolled in 1932 in order to study the natural history of the disease. The study continued until 1972 without treatment although penicillin as an effective medicine to treat syphilis was available since 1947. Only 74 were alive when the study was stopped after a report by AP caused an uproar.

By far the worst offender in the long line of heinous crimes committed by doctors in the name of science using Blacks as their guinea pigs is Dr. James Marion Sims. Marion Sims early in his career had an interest in neo natal tetanus which he attributed to the ignorance of the mothers and Black midwives who attended them believing "enslaved Africans to be intellectually and morally inferior". He also believed the skull bone movements during protracted birth to be contributory and used shoemaker’s awl to pry the skull into alignment. Death rate was 100%. He performed autopsies on these bodies. None of these were consented to by the mothers.

It is later in his career however that his demonic experiments were carried out on enslaved women. Vesico-Vaginal fistula, a catastrophic complication of childbirth leading to urine incontinence was a major problem in the US at the time as it is in many parts of the developing world today. Dr. Sims took 12 enslaved women for multiple surgical experiments without anesthesia from 1845 to 1849. He describes his experiments on three of these women: Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey. Anarcha alone was subjected to surgical operations 30 times.  He also experimented on recto-vaginal fistula, a condition that leads to fecal incontinence. The anesthetic, ether was available as early as 1842 and its usefulness was publicly demonstrated in Boston in 1846. He chose not to use ether even then. He believed like many of his contemporaries that Blacks did not feel pain. This human experiments helped him prefect surgical technique to repair fistula. He was then able to provide the service to his white patients under anesthesia.

Physicians take the Hippocratic Oath on completing medical studies and the very first principle of that oath is “Primmum non Nocere”-First do no harm. Sims and many others like him did not only break that oath but went far beyond the boundaries of human decency to commit egregious acts of moral and ethical depravity that constituted crimes against humanity.

This crime is not one that can be sanitized as being simply ethically unacceptable. So, one may ask “how was Sims viewed in the medical profession and the society at large”? Well, he received accolades for his "accomplishments". He was rewarded with statues in places like New York's Central Park and Jefferson medical college in Philadelphia. The marker at his birthplace in South Carolina honors him “for his service to suffering women, Empress and slave alike”. He is recognized as father of modern gynecology and obstetrics. He was feted everywhere including Europe where he was called to treat Empress Eugenie. One may try to forgive Dr. Sims’s racist actions by arguing that he was only a product of his times. That argument does not hold water. The noted physician and founding father of our nation, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush saw the evils of slavery and helped organize the first anti-slavery society of America a century and half before Sims.

These constant assaults on the Black body which in essence denies the very humanity of the Black person  is what Ta-Nahisi Coates so eloquently conveys in his letter to his son which was published as a groundbreaking book ‘Between the World and Me”.

Such crimes were so routinized and normalized as medical research that in order to understand the horror, if it can be understood at all, one needs to read and reread Hannah Arendt, the preeminent thinker of the 20th Century and a Holocaust survivor who coined the phrase the "banality of evil” to try to make sense of the Nazi crimes against humanity and the quiet acceptance and perhaps acquiescence of the population at large.

New York City too has to come clean on its role in celebrating Dr. Sims whose statue on tax payer supported public property is a constant reminder that Black lives don’t matter; the least the City could do is remove this affront to New Yorkers particularly to people of color who now constitute the majority.


Dr. Mohammed Nurhussein is a retired physician

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