Amid gathering momentum for removing Confederate monuments in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, activists are focusing their attention on another controversial historical figure commemorated in stone: J. Marion Sims.

Sims was a White 19th century doctor who performed countless gynecological surgeries on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. The Washington Post reports:

Sims, who practiced medicine in Alabama from 1835 to 1849 before moving to New York, invented the speculum and other instruments still in use today. He pioneered surgery for fistula, a condition that left women incontinent after giving birth; historians say the treatment revolutionized the field of gynecology. He also performed the first successful gallbladder surgery and the first successful artificial insemination.

But this description of his work doesn’t explain how he pioneered those surgeries or who suffered through his many experiments without anesthesia: enslaved Black women. Those details explain why activists are calling for the removal of statues erected in his honor in New York City, South Carolina and Alabama. Earlier this month, activists with Black Youth Project 100 staged a protest in front of the New York City statue commemorating Sims.


A 2006 article in The Washington Post on the removal of a controversial painting of Sims from the University of Alabama at Birmingham explains more about his surgical experiments:

Anarcha Wescott, Sim’s patient in the painting, endured 30 surgeries as Sims worked to perfect the technique. She was among about a dozen slaves on whom Sims operated repeatedly without anesthetic, which was just being developed but wasn’t widely used at the time. Some scholars have questioned whether the slaves gave or were capable of giving informed consent to the surgery, despite Sims’s claim they eagerly sought his cures.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is considering whether to remove the Sims statue, as part of a wider review of “symbols of hate” on city property. While The Post reports that Columbia, South Carolina’s African American mayor Steve Benjamin told MSNBC that “he is more offended by the statue of Sims on the capitol grounds than any Confederate memorial,” the statue and the state health department building named in his honor remain.