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Dr. James Marion Sims Sculpture

Green-Wood Cemetery

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

This bronze sculpture depicts Dr. James Marion Sims (1813–1883), who has been referred to as the “father of modern gynecology”. Sims has been the subject of much discussion, with some condemning the physician for his medical practices, and with others defending his record within the context of his time.  Sims’ medical advances were achieved through practice of surgical techniques on enslaved Black women, who were his principal subjects in the South where he initially practiced. 

Sims was born in Lancaster County, South Carolina.  He graduated from South Carolina College in 1832 and completed his medical studies at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1835. He practiced medicine in Lancaster County and then established a practice in Montgomery, Alabama. While living in the South, Sims owned slaves.

From 1845 to 1849 Sims conducted a series of experiments on enslaved Black women that led to medical breakthroughs in treating vesicovaginal fistula, which results from difficult childbirths. Three of the enslaved women were identified by Sims as Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. Medical scholarship has debated Sims' application of "informed consent" with respect to these enslaved patients. By law, slaves had no personal rights and were the property of their owners who held possession of their lives, their bodies, and their labor. Many have also condemned the ethics of Sims’ scientific methods. He operated on these subjects, in some cases repeatedly, without the use of anesthesia.  At the time, anesthesia was new to the medical profession, and was first publicly demonstrated at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846. 

In 1853, Sims moved to New York and founded the Woman’s Hospital of New York in 1855. During the Civil War (1861 to 1865), Sims left the United States for Europe. He returned to establish a thriving New York practice and was elected president of the American Medical Association in 1876.  Sims’ groundbreaking surgical methods and inventions earned him considerable renown. A popular subscription drive to erect this statue in his honor, organized through the Medical Record, solicited contributions from nearly 1,000 medical professionals. His techniques remain in use to this day.

The statue by German artist Ferdinand von Miller II (1842-1929) was cast in Munich, Germany in 1892 and dedicated two years later in what is now known as Bryant Park. In 1934, the sculpture was reinstalled in Central Park opposite the New York Academy of Medicine, at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street. A new stone pedestal and setting, designed by the Parks Department's Chief Consulting Architect Aymar Embury II (1880-1966), was inserted into the perimeter wall. In January 2018, in response to sustained widespread criticism of Sims legacy as achieved by the exploitation of a vulnerable population, and now at odds with our contemporary values and ethics, a Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments and Markers recommended removal of the sculpture from its Central Park location, and the sculpture was relocated (on a long-term loan basis) in April 2018 to Green-Wood Cemetery in  Brooklyn, where it will be displayed beside Sims’ gravesite on a long-term basis, and continue to serve as a reminder of our history and its complexity.

Monday, Apr 16, 2018

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