Medical History

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There are echoes of the past in medicine as well as in society. American history is full of regrettable occurrences and actions, for example slavery, the Civil War, segregation and Jim Crow, and internment of Japanese Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor, just to name a few. Likewise, medicine has had its own share of tragedies. Let’s take the case of Dr. J. Marion Sims. Dr. Sims was born in South Carolina in the early nineteenth century. He became a physician and a surgeon. In the 1840s, he operated on sick slave women. Even though ether had been invented, it was very scarce, so he did not use anesthesia. He operated on some women as many as 30 times over a four-year period. This was a common occurrence in the antebellum South. Sick slaves were of no use to their owners and therefore of no value either. The owners would enter into a contract with a doctor who would treat the sick slaves. Slaves obviously didn’t consent to their living conditions, nor did they consent to any surgery.

With the winds of civil war swirling in the South, in 1854 Dr. Sims moved to New York. He made no secret of his work with slave women, in fact he praised their courage and their contributions to medical knowledge. Here in New York, he founded the New York Women’s Hospital and established an international reputation. He founded the American Society of Gynecology and is regarded as the father of modern gynecology. He also served as president of the American Medical Association. After his death in 1883, statues to him were erected in Columbia, South Carolina, Birmingham, Alabama, and here in NYC in 1894. Except for a brief period in the 1930s, his statue stood in Bryant Park until very recently when the powers that be in the City moved it to Green-Wood cemetery, his final resting place.

Philosopher George Santayana said that “those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” William Faulkner once wrote, “the past is never dead, it isn’t even past.” There is often talk of removing statues of those whose history is now considered, at least by some, to be offensive. For example, Robert E. Lee. Those who clamor for the removal of statues remembering him probably aren’t aware of the fact that he owned no slaves (although his wife did) and considered slavery offensive. In the time before the Civil War, many held more allegiance to their state than to the small federal government, which is why when Virginia seceded, he chose to follow his state. There is no disputing the fact that he was a brilliant general and a respectable gentleman. As for Dr. Sims, which Dr. Sims do we choose to remember – the one who operated on sick slaves or the world-renowned surgeon? NYC chose the former. By the way, his statues in Columbia and Birmingham still stand today. My reference to echoes of the past in is reference to a deeply disturbing study released a few years ago. A leading institution took a survey of their medical students and found that many held notions that the blood of black people clotted at a different rate than white people, black people’s skin is thicker, and black people have a lower sensitivity to pain. All ghosts of bygone racism. Sad.

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