There are dozens of plaques, signs, memorials and statues in Central Park dedicated to important figures and legends in history. Some of them bear familiar names, but others, like J. Marion Sims, may not ring a bell immediately.
Credited as “the father of modern gynecology,” it doesn’t seem strange that there would be a statue of him just outside the borders of Central Park, within view of the New York Academy of Medicine.
Except that Sims experimented on black women, often without anesthesia. The former plantation doctor began using enslaved women as test subjects in the late 1840s to find a surgical cure to fix internal damage after a traumatic birth.
Under the racist belief that black patients did not feel pain the same way as their white counterparts, he performed exploratory surgery on black women before trying his new surgery on white women.
Most of his test subjects went unnamed except for three women: Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey. The three women have no statues or plaques commemorating their sacrifices for modern medicine. Sims established some of New York’s first women’s hospitals and introduced the speculum, which is still used by gynecologists today. He gained fame and wealth in a way his first patients never could.
Last August, activists from Black Youth Project protested in front of the statue at 103rd Street and 5th Avenue, echoing the calls of some medical professionals and historians to remove the statue from its prominent place of honor.
The statue was removed from Central Park Tuesday morning and will be moved to Sim’s gravesite at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says there are also plans to add the names of the women who served as Sims’s first patients to a new plaque.
Tom Finkelpearl of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs co-chaired the monuments commission that recommended the removal of Sims’s statue from New York public life.
“Whatever he represents, the scientific discoveries or procedures he developed, was based on a tradition of experimentation upon black bodies,” he said. “It’s a shameful part of our history and should not be on a pedestal in New York City.”
Finkelpearl also had suggestions as to what should take Sims’s place in the park.
“The recommendation endorsed by the commission was to say, ‘let’s try to find maybe three African American women doctors. Let’s put on a pedestal the women who made a major contribution to their community with medical advancements or who had a relationship with East Harlem,’” he said.
“It’s finding heroes to put on a pedestal. We’re at the beginning of that process.”