In Central Park, just across from the New York Academy of Medicine in East Harlem, stands a 14-foot marble statue of J. Marion Sims (1813–83). Sims was a gynecologist whose practice mostly centered in a small town outside of Montgomery, Alabama. His claim to fame was the invention of the speculum and his 1840s surgeries on slave women to correct fistulas in their vaginal walls. Fistulas, now seen primarily in parts of Africa, were common in the 19th century. For black enslaved women, fistulas were often a result of rape, repeated pregnancies, poor nutrition, and untreated infections.
Sims has been controversial for a long time. Even in his day there were questions about his techniques and endless surgeries on these women—whose agony he admitted—to perfect the techniques. Since at least the 1960s, feminist historians, medical ethicists, and community activists have raised an outcry about the adulation of Sims and the ways in which the women upon whom he operated are unknown.
The debate about Sims has been on multiple sides. While he was accused of doing these initial surgeries on black women without anesthesia, he did so in an era when ether was just beginning to be used and it was assumed that women and black people were capable of enduring more pain than white men. The use of black bodies, both alive and dead, alas, was and still is a common medical practice in research.