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October 16, 2018

Historical Aspects of Race and Medicine: The Case of J. Marion Sims

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of History, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey
JAMA. 2018;320(15):1529-1530. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.11944

In April 2018, after years of controversy, New York City removed a statue of Dr J. Marion Sims from Central Park across from the New York Academy of Medicine. For decades, Sims had been a polarizing figure. He was praised as a “father of modern gynecology” for his pathbreaking surgical treatment of vesico-vaginal fistula, but vilified because he developed the technique by experimenting on enslaved women in Alabama in the 1840s.

The Sims debate echoed other national controversies about monuments celebrating Confederate-era individuals; specifically, whether such statues celebrated true heroes or abhorrent values, and whether removing them disrespected the past or honored the present. The Sims controversy also cast a harsh light on medicine and its notable figures and provided an opportunity to consider how medicine deals with questions of race, disease, and difference.

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    1 Comment for this article
    Medical Research involving atrocious methodology
    John Leung, M.B.,B.S., F.R.C.S.Ed. | Visiting Physician and Consultant Cardiothoracic Surgeon, St. Paul's Hospital, Hong Kong
    I understand the objection towards using slaves to work out a method of repair of vesico-vaginal fistula. But at least it was carried out with the intention of benefiting mankind with a new surgical technique. I would like to draw the readers' attention to a little mentioned atrocious medical experiment carried out on Chinese civilians enslaved by the Imperial Japanese Army in Manchuria during the 1930s and early 1940s.
    Step 1, Chinese humans were labeled as "Chinese pigs" so that the Japanese could establish a sort of racism and considered them as subhuman and suitable experimental subjects.
    Step 2,
    these Chinese people being sub-humanized were tested with chemical toxic agents and, worse still, lethal bacteria, in order to advance chemical and biological warfare by the Japanese War machine.
    This was not exactly part of the War. Manchuria was already conquered by Japan and made a dependent kingdom of Japan at that time. The Manchuria Chinese were already made second class citizens of Japan. But their status was far worse than the slaves of the Southern States of U.S.A. And the "medical experiments" by the Japanese were designed to further their atrocious conquest rather than helping mankind.
    And those people who master-minded those inhuman medical experiments are still enshrined in a big Shinto Temple in Tokyo!