J. Marion Sims may have been a product of his time, a white man who devalued people of color, but that doesn’t absolve him of his awfulness. He turned enslaved black women into laboratory mice, performing untested gynecological techniques and surgeries on them without their consent and without anesthesia. Slaves, of course, couldn’t give consent. Human property didn’t control their own bodies.
He is considered the father of modern gynecology, a 19th-century scientific legend. Statues and buildings across the United States carry his name and likeness. Books and medical-journal entries have been written about his advancement of this critical field.
New York City this spring dismantled a statue of Sims in Central Park. Twelve years ago, UAB removed a painting of Sims from one of its medical buildings. The Medical University of South Carolina — in Sims’ home state — removed his name three months ago from one of its endowed chairs.
Yet, the Sims statue displayed on the grounds of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery remains in place. And despite calls from a few members of the state Legislature, it’s doubtful that Alabama will follow those aforementioned leads and remove this offensive effigy from state grounds.
Alabama can’t help being Alabama.
The monuments bill Gov. Kay Ivey famously signed into law after taking over from Luv Guv Robert Bentley has shackled the state. No alterations can be made to statues, memorials or anything carrying a historic label without Montgomery approval. It’s also classic Alabama politics, removing local control over local issues and handing it to an unenlightened Legislature. At its core, this reprehensible law is a caustic defense of the death rattle heard from Southern heritage groups tired of cities removing Johnny Reb statues or refusing to fly Confederate battle flags on state property.
It’s also an election year in Republican-dominated Alabama, so any chance that something progressive and altogether right will occur is dead before it starts.
Sims isn’t a household name outside of medical schools and gynecological professionals’ conventions. So consider this passage from a story in The Atlantic about Sims and his deeply troubling past:
“The first serious challenge to Sims’s lionization came in a 1976 book by the historian G.J. Barker-Benfield titled The Horrors of the Half-Known. Barker-Benfield juxtaposed Sims’s ‘extremely active, adventurous policy of surgical interference with woman’s sexual organs’ with his considerable ambition and self-interest. The man who once admitted ‘if there was anything I hated, it was investigating the organs of the female pelvis,’ took to gynecology with a ‘monomania’ once he realized it was his ticket to fame and fortune, writes Barker-Benfield.”
Our suggestion: Replace Sims’ statue with one remembering the black Alabama slaves he abused. That would send a message. That would right a wrong. That would label our state as one unafraid to admit its aged errors and honor those who’ve so long been ignored and forgotten within our borders.