In a Tuesday interview, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that, two years after the state removed the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse, there are still monuments “on our Statehouse grounds that I find wholly offensive.” “There are a few of them, actually, have to do with the Civil War,” Benjamin told Matthews. “Several of them have to do with the period of post-Reconstruction in which there were reigns of terror led by the Ku Klux Klan and others like ‘Pitchfork’ Ben Tillman.” The 8-foot-bronze sculpture of Tillman, a former governor who bragged about murdering black men, has long been a site of contention.
But Benjamin singled out a lesser-known South Carolinian who is memorialized on the Statehouse grounds in the form of a bronze bust: J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century physician lionized as the “father of gynecology.” Benjamin argued that the statute of Sims “should come down at some point,” and his demand is a compelling one. Though Sims is largely unknown outside of medical histories, treated as an inventive physician who benevolently created the specialized field of gynecology, his practices are a horrifying testament to the brutality of slavery and its tangled relationship to American medicine.
In official accounts of Sims, he is generally treated as a stereotype of a great physician: intelligent, ingenious, and deeply concerned with the welfare of women. One modern writer described him as “arguably the most famous American surgeon of the 19th century.” Among his achievements are the invention of the speculum and the development of a surgical solution for vesicovaginal fistula, a complication from childbirth that can leave women incontinent. In 1855, Sims opened the Women’s Hospital in New York City, the first American hospital dedicated to the treatment of women and, in 1875, he was elected president of the American Medical Association. In biographical accounts that simply emphasize Sims’s outcomes, keeping close to that practiced medical narrative that values invention above all, he indeed sounds like a hero. Or, at least a physician concerned with the well-being of women in an era when research into women’s health was plagued by gender stereotypes.
But Sims’s own experiments were far from heroic. Instead, his medical breakthroughs were realized through barbaric surgical experimentation on enslaved black women. Between 1845 and 1849, Sims (by then in Alabama) performed hundreds of experimental surgeries on slave women that he either borrowed or purchased in order to perfect his vesicovaginal fistula surgery.
In her rigorous account, Medical Apartheid, the writer and historian Harriet Washington complicates the history of Sims as a great and benevolent physician. Washington notes that vesicovaginal fistula “is emotionally and socially devastating and it condemned many a southern lady to permanent invalidism.” There’s no doubt that it was a condition in need of a cure. Sims saw his opportunity to make his both name and reputation. But, as Washington writes, Sims “knew that using white women to test such painful surgeries as might be effective against it was impossible.” In pre-Civil War Alabama, however, Sims had a pool of women he could experiment on without many objections: black women.
Sims obtained 11 black women for his purposes. Most were “borrowed” from owners after the doctor promised to pay their room and board. For four years Sims experimented on these women in a rough building he constructed in his backyard. Sims kept copious notes on the experimental surgeries and while none of the women whom he experimented on have voices in these narratives, some of the names (or at least what he called them) have been preserved. In his writing, Sims recounts the surgeries he performed on Betsey, Lucy, and Anarcha, particularly the 30 he performed on Anarcha.
Sims’s language is typical for slave owners in the era; peppered with racial slurs and vivid in its depiction of his unfettered access to black women’s bodies. Washington writes:
Sims, working with enslaved blacks was [not] constrained by delicacy. He made the women undress completely, then kneel on hands and knees while he and several physicians took turns inserting a special speculum he had devised to open women’s vaginas fully to view. “I saw everything as no man had ever seen before,” he marveled.
In his writing, Sims recalls how the women were held down by either each other or his assistant and butchered without anesthesia or consent. It’s worth noting that full anesthesia wasn’t widely used before the Civil War, but ether would have been available to Sims. He declined to use ether because, like many physicians of the era, he believed that the sensation of pain was bound primarily to race and, secondarily, to class. In her book, Washington paints a vivid picture of Sims’s experiments, and it is worth reading if you’re interested in the intersection of race and medicine in America.
To contextualize Sims’s experiments a bit, even many of his contemporaries thought that his methods were barbaric and asked him to stop. Decades later, in response, he wrote that slave women were “clamorous” for the operation. He also implied that the women had assisted him in his surgery by staying still and holding other slave women down when ordered (these claims, as well as arguments that women like Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey “consented” to the surgeries, have been reiterated well into the 21st century). Most of his peers, however, hailed his interventions as a miracle. In 1883, the New York Times wrote that Sims’s experiments “were of great advantage to members of his profession in the treatment of female diseases.”
After Sims concluded what Durrenda Ojanuga described as his “unethical experimentation with powerless Black women,” he traveled to New York and, in 1855 established the Women’s Hospital. There, Sims continued to perform his vesicovaginal fistula surgery. Wealthy women flocked to Sims for the surgery, as well as his renowned ability to perform Battey’s surgery, a surgical solution for hysteria and nerves that entailed the full removal of women’s ovaries.
Sims’s experiments on enslaved black women are, sadly, the tip of the iceberg. His career, the renown that he has even today, was built on the bodies of enslaved black people—men, women, and children. Yet, a bust of Sims with no context still stands on the South Carolina statehouse. And it isn’t the only one. There is a statue of Sims in New York’s Central Park, another at his alma mater, and one in Alabama’s state capital. His South Carolina birthplace has a historical marker that expresses gratitude for his “service to suffering women.”
In New York, there have been efforts for some time to relocate or remove the statue of Sims. East Harlem Preservation has been particularly vocal, writing that “J. Marion Sims is not our hero,” on their website. Others have suggested that the sculptures of Sims be contextualized by adding representations of the slave women he experimented on. Unsurprisingly, Steve Benjamin is one of the few asking for the removal of Sims’s sculpture in South Carolina. Sims, Benjamin said, “tortured slave women and children for years as he developed his treatments for gynecology.” In 2006, a Sims descendant decried “political correctness run amok,” when the University of Alabama-Birmingham removed a portrait of Sims—but the life-size bronze of the doctor still stands outside of the state capitol.
If anything, the monuments of Sims reveal the lie that monuments preserve history, forcing the public to confront and remember difficult moments in American history. Instead, Sims’s monuments, like the Confederate monuments that dot the southern landscape, facilitate myth-building and forgetting. In busts and monuments, Sims is preserved as the “father of gynecology,” presented as an uncomplicated and benevolent man of science, rather than as a man whose invention was brutally enabled by slavery.