Nature magazine has run a piece titled — brace yourself, it’s ridiculously bad — “Removing statues of historical figures risks whitewashing history”. It is subtitled “Science must acknowledge mistakes as it marks its past”, just to make it a little bit worse.
The objection is that people are clamoring to tear down a statue of a doctor and scientist, J. Marion Sims. How dare they question the honoring of a scientist?
The statues of explorer Christopher Columbus and gynaecologist J. Marion Sims stand at nearly opposite corners of New York City’s Central Park, but for how much longer? Both monuments have been dragged into a nationwide debate about memorials to historical figures who have questionable records on human rights. The arguments are long-standing, but were thrown onto the world’s front pages last month when protests against the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, produced racially charged violence.
Last week, the Central Park Sims statue — one of many that stand in numerous US cities — was vandalized. The word ‘racist’ was spray-painted alongside his list of achievements, which include life-saving techniques he developed to help women recover from traumatic births. Yet many protest about the lionization of this ‘father of modern gynaecology’ because he performed his experiments on female slaves.
Yes, let us remember that Sims did save women’s lives. Sims pioneered a surgical treatment for vesico-vaginal fistulas (VVF), a common outcome of difficult labor that produced tears between the bladder and vagina and led to constant leakage of urine into the vagina. It was debilitating and shame-producing. Sims worked out a way to close off the fistulas. We don’t want to forget that!
Another thing we don’t want to forget is how it was worked out. That little line I highlighted up there, “because he performed his experiments on female slaves”, is minimizing what he did, and that also is a whitewashing of history, and failing to acknowledge a “mistake”, if we can call willful infliction of pain on unconsenting people a “mistake”. If we’re going to talk about the good that he accomplished, we also have to consider the evil of his method. I’ve read some justifications for his surgeries that say that because black slaves also suffered from VVF, it was legitimate that he experimented on them — they benefited too from his work! But let’s not forget that the reason he operated on these women is that he did not have to get their consent, and that part of his excuse is the belief that black people are less sensitive to pain.
And what he did was horrendous. Even acknowledging that all surgeries in the early 19th century were horrendous, he treated women like experimental animals. Here’s an account of his first experimental subject:
The enslaved women were not asked if they would agree to such an operation as they were totally without any claims to decision-making about their bodies or any other aspect of their lives. Sims used a total of seven enslaved women as experimental subjects; permission was obtained from their masters. They were in no way volunteers for Dr Sims’s research.
Nevertheless, Dr Sims was so positive that he was on the verge of making an astounding medical discovery that he invited local doctors to witness his first operation and what he thought would be a historical event. He performed his first operation on a slave-woman named Lucy.
Lucy was operated on without anaesthetics as Sims was unaware of the advances which had been made in this area of medicine. The surgery lasted for an hour and Lucy endured excruciating pain while positioned on her hands and knees. She must have felt extreme humiliation as twelve doctors observed the operation. Unfortunately, the operation failed as ‘two little openings in the line of union, across the vagina … remained although the larger fistula had been repaired’.
Lucy nearly lost her life, due to the experimental use by Sims of a sponge to drain the urine away from the bladder, as she became extremely ill with fever resulting from blood-poisoning. In recounting the episode in his autobiography, Sims says, ‘I thought she was going to die . . . it took Lucy two or three months to recover entirely from the effects of the operation’.
Sims’ method belongs in the history books, and no one is proposing erasing this protocol from the annals of medicine. But ignoring the suffering and degradation of the women in this experiment, as we have to do to think Sims deserves the honor of a prominent monument, erases a shameful era in our history, all while Nature protests that those who understand the full range of Sims’ actions are the ones doing the erasure.
It’s embarrassing, too, because whoever wrote this ought to know that the work of scientists isn’t honored with statuary. It’s honored with the work of those who follow afterwards.