After 84 years in New York City’s Central Park, the Department of Parks and Recreation removed a statue of 19th century gynecologist J. Marion Sims on Tuesday. In his medical research, Sims took advantage of societal dehumanization of Black people by operating (without anesthesia or consent) on enslaved women.
Referred to as “the father of gynecology,” Sims, a Southern-born slaveholder and doctor, performed surgical experiments on enslaved Black women to find a cure for vesicovaginal fistula.
Many of the Black women are unknown and unnamed except for three (that Dr. Simms named): Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey. Sims performed experiments on the women with the condition, a then common complication of childbirth resulting in a tear between the uterus and bladder, causing urine leakage.
Illustration from a pharmaceutical art print distributed by the Parke-Davis company in 1961.Historical Collections & Archives, Oregon Health & Science University
Sims using Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey as laboratory specimens is part of a legacy of dehumanizing Black women, and Black people in America a legacy that exists in extreme disparities today.
Black Infant Mortality Rates
Infant mortality is the death of an infant before his or her first birthday. The infant mortality rate is the number of infant deaths for every 1,000 live births. Along with life expectancy, infant mortality rates are often used as indicators for the overall health of a population.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for every 1,000 live births, 4.8 white infants die in the first year of life. For Black infants, that number is 11.7 more than double that of whites.
A report from the CDC released in January shows the mortality rate of infants born to Black women by state.
In 20132015, the mortality rate ranged from 8.27 per 1,000 live births in Massachusetts, the lowest, to 14.28 in Wisconsin, the highest. In addition to Wisconsin, mortality rates were significantly higher in Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio.
Arthur James, an OB-GYN at Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State University in Columbus, told NPR in December that the majority of those Black infants that die are born premature because Black mothers have a higher risk of going into early labor.
“Scientists and doctors have spent decades trying to understand what makes African American women so vulnerable to losing their babies,” NPR reports. “Now, there is growing consensus that racial discrimination experienced by Black mothers during their lifetime makes them less likely to carry their babies to full term.”
Legacy of Experimentation
In the book, “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present,” author Harriet A. Washington, a medical ethicist, discusses how both enslaved and free Black people were used in hospitals for experiments conducted without their knowledge, which she notes is a tradition that continues today within some Black populations.
For example, in July, a Tennessee judge had to rescind a potentially unconstitutional offer he made to reduce sentences of convicted inmates if they agreed to a vasectomy.
Washington had “originally favored a historical marker or even a statue of the enslaved women who had been used in the experiments,” in lieu of Sims’ statue in Central Park, she told The New York Times in August.
However, a visit to Germany in 2015, where she had lived as a child, “shook her.”
“One thing Germany does is the banning of the semiotics of Nazism,” she said. “There is zero tolerance. That is what a civilized society does. It does not celebrate symbols of enslavement and genocide.”
The move of Sims’ statue is part of the decision by Mayor Bill de Blasio with input from the city’s Monument Commission. The Public Design Commission on Monday voted unanimously to relocate the statue to Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.
But for seven years, the East Harlem community called removal of the statue from its location on Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street.
“Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey these women had names,” New York City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said at a rally on Monday. “[Sims] repeatedly performed surgery on Black women without anesthesia because, according to him, Black women don’t feel pain.”