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J. Marion Sims, Surgeon or Monster?

By Jose B. Rivera

Photo the statue erected in honor of Dr. J. Marion Sims in 1894 on East 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue, on the border of Central Park East Harlem - April 27, 2008.  A recent poll in the East Harlem Preservation website asks its visitors if the statue of J. Marion Sims should be removed from its present location. The question is phrased as follows: “Should the NYC Parks Department remove the statue of Dr. Marion Sims from its East Harlem location considering his experiments on female and infant slaves?” The question assumes that those being polled have some knowledge of just who was Dr. J. Marion Sims.  Hopefully, all polled did some research before adding their two cents.
Dr. J. Marion Sims Jan. 25, 1813 - Nov. 13, 1883.
In viewing the above dates it should immediately strike the reader that we are dealing with someone from outside our current time and place.  Dr. Sims was born over 195 years ago. Quite close to 200 years ago.  He died just over 125 years ago.  Keep this in mind when evaluating Dr. Sims.

J. Marion Sims is famous for pioneering a treatment for vesicovaginal fistula A vesicovaginal fistula can be caused by injury to the urinary tract, which can occur accidentally during surgery to the pelvic area, such as a hysterectomy. It can also be caused by a tumor in the vesicovaginal area or by reduced blood supply due to tissue death (necrosis) caused by radiation therapy or prolonged labor during childbirth.

The most common symptom is constant urine leakage from the vagina. The patient may also experience irritation in the area of the vulva, and frequent urinary tract infections.” (Penn State Health & Diseases Topics A-Z)

It seems that Dr. Sims learned, tweaked and homed his treatment for vesicovaginal fistula by working on his own patients and on African Slaves women and children. Dr. Sims has been accused of treating the African Slave women without the use of any anesthetic during the procedure (operation).  Although he did administer an opiate after the procedure to alleviate the pain.  Some have also accuse Dr. Sims of deliberately trying to addict these women to the opiate.  Due to all his pioneering work, Dr. Sims is known as the “Father of Gynecology”. His treatment has allowed thousands of women to lead normal lives. Since his time treatments built upon his pioneering work have helped eve more women.

Dr. Sims did in fact try and improve his treatment for vesicovaginal fistula whenever he came across it in his line of work.  This included white and African Slave women.  The difference was that Dr. Sims did not administer an anesthetic to the African Slave women.  Still his actual knowledge was garnered by both white and African Slaves.  So that the procedure itself was not a mutilation of slave women and a correct procedure for white women. Secondly, after perfecting his treatment, he applied it equally to all women.  And all women benefit to this day.

It seems that the main contention really is that Dr. Sims did not administer an anesthetic to the African slave women.  This write acknowledges that was indeed unfortunate and not what I would wish on the worlds worst people.  It was unfortunate because those women suffered great great pain.  Some of them were repeatedly operated on by Dr. Sims to correct the problem, some to the tune of over 30 times.  It is unimaginable the pain these particular women went through. 

Repeated operations more than suggest two things, one that Dr. Sims was seeking (exploring) a way to correct this medical problem, hence the repeated attempts, and two that he was determined to try until he found the correct procedure.  He could have tried any procedure once or twice, failed, and given up thereby dooming thousands of women to suffer. But he persisted till he figured out how to help these women, all women.

Call for the Removal of the Statue
But some are calling for the removal of Dr. Sims’ statue under the accusation that he was “racists” and that he “tortured” slave women. A statue that has been in its present and only location since 1894. Just how fair is that call for the statue’s removal?

Let’s look at the facts:
Dr. Sims did in fact work out his procedure on women the majority of which were slaves.
Dr. Sims did in fact not anesthetize slave patients choosing instead to give then opiates after the procedure.  It is possible that Dr. Sims did not think the slave women to be human beings at all. A not uncommon way of thinking back then, hence the civil war.  All of the above does not bode well for the Dr. Sims as more Doctor than monster.

What can mitigate against seeing Dr. Sims as a monster or torturer? First it must be remembered that Dr. Sims operated at a time when anesthesia was just beginning to be used with medical confidence (1846).  Not all surgeons had access to anesthesia let alone used it initially.  It took time for anesthesia to known, distributed and used properly.  Dr. Sims did use it on his white females patients, but not on his African Slave patients as he may not have thought them as fully human. Again a belief common to that time.  He did think enough of them to give them an opiate (pain killer) to relive post operative pain. So he was not totally without concern or empathy for these women.

What current day activists are trying to do is punish Dr. Sims for not being like us.  He is being punished for not thinking like a 20th-21st Century activist.  Much like poor Christopher Columbus, Dr. Sims is the victim tremendously displaced hindsight. Activists are holding past historical figures “guilty” of something they could not possibly possess, which is Current Day Thinking.  Basically they are trying impose current day social morality on a 19th century man.  The man not having benefited from the last 150 years of knowledge in areas of medicine, and moral discourse. But is still held accountable for it.(for what he does not have)  It’s like blaming cavemen for not using acrylics to do their cave paintings. 

Photo of part of the Dr. Sims column stating his accomplishmentsThe danger of using present thinking to judge historical figures is that the same will be done to us.  It is nothing but unfair to anyone it is thrust upon.  Imagine 100 years from now when abortion is illegal (due to respect for life). Some writer decides that the statues of all who supported abortion should be brought down, no matter how much “social justice” they did in our current time.  Would it be fair to be judged on just one thing?  No matter how much good you did?

Or lets say that vegetarians have their way an impose no meat eating upon society. And they decide that all who ate meat should be erased from history.  Would you want to be judged in the future on something you barely give a second thought to now?

What this writer is saying is that we must remember the historical context that others had to live in and respect that they did the best with what they knew.  They did not have the benefit of our way of thinking.  This does not excuse bad behavior or ways of thinking. We can say that Columbus did not treat the American Indians well (sorry I’m too educated to be PC minded), but also realize that way of thinking was not an uncommon way for Europeans to think back then.

But we can still say that Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Che, Castro, Sandinistas,  and others of their ilk were indeed evil people (results of atheism, the biggest killer of people ever).  But they all lived in a time when they should have known better by virtue of all the human rights, natural rights and theology around during the turn of the century (1900).

The same can not be said of Dr. Sims.  He never heard the great men like Martin Luther King, or Supreme Court Justice Thomas. He never went through the civil rights era and learned from that.  He never had the benefit of our current thinking. But he did find a procedure to help all women, white, black, Asian, etc.. who had a vesicovaginal fistula.  He did not use this correct procedure only on white women, but on all women who came to him for help.  And as use of his procedure spread among all surgeons even more women were helped regardless of color, ethnicity, or language. 

What do do?Photo of the Dr Sims statue column stating the honors bestowed upon him by this and other countries around the world
It seems Dr. Sims did some good along with some bad.  But even the bad that he did, he did in an effort to find a corrective procedure for vesicovaginal fistula.  His intention was not to mutilate or disfigure his patients. His intention was to find a way to makes things right, by finding a corrective procedure for vesicovaginal fistula. What do we do with that knowledge of all the good he did? Do we dismiss all the good he did?  He was no Dr. Josef Mengele.  He was trying to help his patients.

Lastly, a generation of citizens decided to honor Dr. Sims’ life by erecting a statue of him.  He received honors from Belgium, France Italy, Spain and Portugal. It seems presumptuous and elitist of us to undo their judgment and honoring of Dr. Sims. We are telling that generation and those countries that we know better than they who lived in that very time.

Whatever you decide please remember that you will be judged as you judge and that future generations judge your judgment. Using the same criteria that is being used against Dr. Sims, it could be argued that most of our U.S. and Puerto Rican artist could be called on the rug and taken from history for all of their faults.  Dr. Sims at least helped people by virtue of being a doctor, found a procedure to correct vesicovaginal fistula, among all the good medicine he practiced.  But how will all our cultural and musical heroes (all the druggie and alcoholic artists) defend themselves having only their art and money received from it (self interest) to show for their faults?  How would you like a 25th Century activist judge you and this whole generation based on something we have not even experienced in our time?

Dr. Sim’s status should remain right where it is.  It would seem sad and petty to yank that statue out of its current location.  And for those who whole heatedly believe his statue should go, the question is this: How does the statue’s removal correct anything? What does it accomplish?  To what end is this act directed?  It does not punish Dr. Sims, he is part of eternity now.  Is the statue removal effort, an attempt, to scratch a “social justice” itch? Do activists not have bigger and live fish to fry?  Or will they continue to pick on those who can not defend themselves because they have died - the easy targets?

Lastly, remember, none of us are totally good.  Unlike Dr. Sims, we do not have hundreds or thousands of patients to show how we spent our lives.  Most of us have more good intentions than good works done to show for our lives.  And yet we dare judge a man who did mostly good, for women no less.  It does seem ungrateful.

It goes to show is that hindsight does not a good judge make. - JBR

The removal of the statue was unwarranted and pushed by those who see racism in everything. The doctor pioneered a procedures still used today to help women. He did not have to treat anyone but rich while women. But he chose to help all women, regardless of skin color. The procedures helped any women who had it. At that time the proper use and dosage of anesthesia was still being figured out. The people he was accused of experimenting on did not have the means to pay for anesthesia. Those who had the statue removed are looking at the past through 21st century viewpoint. It is a silly and shallow way to view the past and historical people. They now feel full of themselves and are proud to have sullied this great pioneer of the medical field. Nothing any artist can great and put in place of the statue can come close to equal the great and real accomplishment of Dr Sims. It’s a shame that history has to be removed. Shame on the people who pushed for this. But the same will happen to you when your children erase what you hold dear. You have lead and showed them the way. I wish them well.

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