Historical Aspects of Race and Medicine: The Case of 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?