Judging history’s heroes and monstersBMJ 2020; 371 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m4554 (Published 10 December 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;371:m4554
- Julian Sheather, writer and ethicist
Consider the ignominious end of Edward Colston’s statue, dragged from its plinth and dumped in the Bristol docks.1 Raised to commemorate Colston’s philanthropy—his name permeates the city—it was toppled because he’d enriched himself in the slave trade. Approval for the protests wasn’t unanimous: despite near universal condemnation of racism and slavery, questions were raised about historical context. If the past is a foreign country, should we judge its inhabitants by modern standards? And isn’t removing statues just an effort to erase a troubled and complex history?
As Kaupp-Roberts2 and Loke and McKernon3 demonstrate in linked articles, these questions are very much alive in medicine today. Kaupp-Roberts maintains that J Marion Sims, developer of the first successful surgical intervention for vesicovaginal fistula and inventor of the Sims vaginal speculum, is a morally questionable figure. Sims declined to use anaesthesia in experimental surgery on female slaves despite earlier successful demonstrations using ethyl ether—hence …