Historical Aspects of Race and Medicine: The Case of J. Marion Sims

September 26, 2018
J Marion Sims

Keith Wailoo Discuses How Race and Medicine Are Intertwined

In April 2018, after years of controversy, New York City removed a statue of Dr J. Marion Sims from Central Park across from the New York Academy of Medicine. For decades, Sims had been a polarizing figure. He was praised as a “father of modern gynecology” for his pathbreaking surgical treatment of vesico-vaginal fistula, but vilified because he developed the technique by experimenting on enslaved women in Alabama in the 1840s.

The Sims debate echoed other national controversies about monuments celebrating Confederate-era individuals; specifically, whether such statues celebrated true heroes or abhorrent values, and whether removing them disrespected the past or honored the present. The Sims controversy also cast a harsh light on medicine and its notable figures and provided an opportunity to consider how medicine deals with questions of race, disease, and difference.

Often framed as a stark choice between medical pioneer and notorious villain, Sims’ story is more complex. At its heart sits a tension: which reality should be valued? Should the focus be on the innovative medical discovery, the experiences of research subjects and patients, or the awful circumstances that led to Sims’ innovation?

Read more at the Journal of the American Medicine Association (JAMA).

Photo credit: 208.365 by romana klee. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Area of Interest: 
African American
Medicine & Health