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Controversial Statue Of 19th Century Gynecologist Removed From Central Park


If you took a stroll through New York City's Central Park this weekend, you might have noticed an empty pedestal where the statue of J. Marion Sims once stood. Sims was a 19th Century surgeon credited as the father of gynecology. Some of the tools he developed are still used in exam rooms today. But his breakthroughs came at the expense of enslaved black women upon whom he performed dozens of intrusive and painful experiments without anesthesia.

Last week, the city moved Sims' statue out of Central Park and announced plans to move it to the cemetery in Brooklyn where he is buried. This is welcome news to Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble. She is a physician and a professor of medical humanities and American studies at George Washington University. And she's been writing about Sims and his legacy for some years now. She was nice enough to come by our Washington, D.C., studios to talk about why this matters.

Dr. Gamble, thanks so much for coming in.

VANESSA NORTHINGTON GAMBLE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now many people in the community for years have been lobbying to have that statue removed, and you've spoken quite a lot about this. Talk a little bit more, if you would, about what - how you describe Sims' legacy. What is his legacy in your view?

GAMBLE: There's the aspect of his legacy in terms of what obstetricians and gynecologists use in terms of the Sims' speculum. So that's part of his legacy. So we can't forget that. But at the same time, part of that legacy is how he came up with those techniques - on the body of black women. I think most medical students still do not know it. Most practicing physicians, when they talk about the Sims' speculum, do not know it. There was a study done in 2011 by a team of urologists, and they went and looked at gynecological and urology textbooks to see if there had been any mention of Sims and his controversial legacy. And they found that it was not. So this is not a part of medical training.

MARTIN: One of the statues that also acknowledges him in South Carolina makes a point of saying that, you know, he treated empresses and he treated enslaved women. But you've made a point of noting that even though anesthesia was in its rudimentary stages at the time that he was practicing, white women were given anesthesia. Black women - the black women upon whom he was experimenting - and these were vaginal surgeries. Let's just be clear about that.

GAMBLE: Right.

MARTIN: Very sensitive areas. Were never given anesthesia.

GAMBLE: When I said that originally, what I was not aware of was, in addition to black women, when he went to New York, he did not give anesthesia to poor Irish women. So it was the women who were the other, the women who he could have power over he did not give anesthesia to. And for some people who are almost apologists for Sims - they want to point out, well, anesthesia was in its infancy. Not a lot of people were using anesthesia. The racial divide, the class divide is important. And also, some of the apologists say, well, the enslaved women gave their consent without thinking about these women were considered property at that time. They were not free to give consent.

MARTIN: Why do you think that the pain question is so important to note - that he treated these women without consideration to how excruciatingly painful this had to have been. I do want to note that on some of these women, he performed dozens of surgeries.

GAMBLE: On one woman, Anarcha, he did 30 surgeries. And the reason I focus on pain is that one of the theories on why black people should be enslaved was that their bodies were different, that they did not feel pain in the same way as white people. And that is an idea and an ideology that we still see in medicine. I can tell you an example. When I was in medical school where a woman was about to have a surgery - it was a - under local anesthetic. And the medical students said isn't it true that black people had thicker skin? You know, we all looked at her, especially the patient, you know because somehow the black body was considered different and is still considered different by some people. There was a study done in 2016, which showed that residents and medical students still believe that black people do not feel pain the same way as white people. So when people say to me - why should we care about Sims? - that's one of the examples that I flag because we all have felt pain.

MARTIN: There's been a big push recently to highlight the fact that African-American mothers are far more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers are in the United States. And in fact, African-American infants are far more likely to die in childbirth than white infants are in the United States. I mean, it's a very huge disparity, and I wondered if you see a connection between that fact and the history that we are talking about.

GAMBLE: I see a connection in that there is a long history that these disparities and inequities have persisted. And I think when we start talking about Sims and we start talking about the health of black women, that this is a moment for us to think about why this long historical trend is continuing.

MARTIN: That's Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble. She is a physician and professor of medical humanities and American studies at George Washington University.

Dr. Gamble, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GAMBLE: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.