When our dad died at age 89 over his strenuous objections, we buried his ashes in Brooklyn’s beautiful, historic Green-Wood Cemetery with the epitaph, “‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world,” from his beloved Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” Thanks to Green-Wood’s 2-for-1 discount, we too look forward to being planted there when our time’s up.
So we’re proud that Green-Wood has offered sanctuary to two of New York City’s statues recently exiled under the cultural revolution.
The first displaced effigy was “The Triumph of Civic Virtue,” a monumental marble sculpture unveiled in front of City Hall in 1921. Symbolizing Good Government overcoming Vice and Corruption, it depicts a husky naked youth with a sword over his shoulder trampling two writhing creatures whose upper halves are female human and whose hair and lower halves appear to be octopus tentacles.
Mayor LaGuardia (1882-1947), annoyed at this daily reminder that he should go to the gym more often, had the statue banished to Queens. It stood for decades at the intersection of Queens Boulevard and Union Turnpike, eroded by pollution and pigeon droppings and angering such highly principled feminists as former Congressman Anthony Weiner, who called for it to be sold on Craigslist.
Such philistinism outraged Richard J. Moylan, the president of Green-Wood, who had the statue restored and moved to the cemetery’s peaceful, spacious grounds.
The accompanying plaque relates the monument’s history and symbolism, patiently explaining, “In allegorical personification, male and female figures represent concepts, not actual people.”
The second sculpture non grata to be granted refuge at Green-Wood is of Dr. J. Marion Sims (1813-1883), founder of New York City’s Women’s Hospital and developer of the first successful operation for vesicovaginal obstetric fistula. His bronze statue was deported from Central Park last month in response to vigorous protests that he had “experimented” on “unwilling” enslaved women without anesthesia. Clearly, he was an Antebellum Dr. Mengele whose statue should be melted down and made into souvenir baby shoes.
We were astonished to learn that the historical record is more complicated.
In an article entitled “The medical ethics of Dr. J. Marion Sims: a fresh look at the historical record,” Dr. L.L. Wall of Washington University points out that for 19th-century women of all races and classes, obstetric fistula was an unendurable, incurable affliction. There’s no reason to doubt the primary historical sources showing that Dr. Sims’s first fistula patients, Lucy, Anarcha and Betsey, although enslaved women incapable of legal consent, not only gave their personal consent to the operations, but insisted that he keep trying despite his initial failures.
Obstetric fistula, the article explains, isn’t a “relatively minor condition” as Sims’s critics assert. It’s a childbirth complication whereby the pressure of the fetus tears a hole between the woman’s bladder and vagina, causing complete loss of urinary and often fecal control. Another physician writing in 1857 described its effects:
The poor woman is now reduced to a condition of the most piteous description, compared with which, most of the other physical evils of life sink into utter insignificance. The urine passing into the vagina as soon as it is secreted, inflames and excoriates its mucous lining, covering it with calcareous depositions, and causing great suffering. It trickles constantly down her thighs, irritates the integument with its acrid qualities, keeps her clothing constantly soaked, and exhales without cessation its peculiar odour, insupportable to herself and those all around her. In cases where the sloughing has been extensive, and the loss of substance of the tissues great, and where neither palliative nor curable means have availed for the relief of the sufferer, she has been compelled to sit constantly on a chair or stool with a hole in the seat, through which the urine descends into a vessel beneath.
Far from using Lucy, Anarcha and Betsey as guinea pigs, Sims operated on them for explicitly therapeutic purposes, was eventually able to repair their condition and publicly acknowledged the debt of gratitude he owed them for their persistence and cooperation.
It’s a convenient untruth that Sims subsequently used anesthetic for his white middle-class patients at Women’s Hospital. Anesthesia from ether wasn’t invented until a year after he performed his first fistula operations, and even then, drew considerable opposition from the medical establishment. In a public lecture, Sims stated that he never used anesthesia in fistula operations “because they are not painful enough to justify the trouble and risk attending their administration.”
“In retrospect this was certainly an unfortunate error in clinical judgment – a mistaken ‘calculus of suffering,'” comments Dr. Wall, “but it was not anesthetic racism,” as Sims’s critics charge.
Lest it be imagined that Wall is some Confederate-flag-waving good ol’ boy defending the Male Medical Establishment, we recommend a visit to the Worldwide Fistula Fund of which he is the Executive Director Emeritus. Although obstetric fistula is now rare in developed countries, in developing countries it remains a condition affecting over 1 million women, “compared with which, most of the other physical evils of life sink into utter insignificance.”
It does no honor to Lucy, Anarcha and Betsey to portray them as nothing but victims. Despite being enslaved, they distinguished themselves as courageous individuals who intelligently chose to participate in experimental surgery to cure what would otherwise have been a hopeless condition. Dr. Sims, like anyone else, should be judged within his historical context, not to mention based on accurate facts.
As for the outcast statue, it will join Dr. Sims and his family at their burial plot in Green-Wood.