Top of Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn
This flourish of monumental architecture commemorates the renowned Brooklyn physician Alexander Skene, a Scot who was a pioneering, gulp, gynecologist and, appropriately, also an amateur sculptor. It is the only statue of a doctor in Brooklyn.
The monument is at the top of Grand Army Plaza, backed into a small hill inside the traffic circle, between Flatbush and Vanderbilt avenues. It consists of an inscribed shovel-shaped stele of weather-worn white Vermont marble adorned by a pedestal and bronze bust of Skene, who is depicted wearing an academic robe. The bust gazes serenely toward the plaza’s centerpiece fountain.
It was sculpted by John Massey Rhind, who also was a Scot. The bust was cast in 1905, and the monument was unveiled on May 14, 1906, in a ceremony presided over by the city parks commissioner.
The stele-and-bust motif is reminiscent of the monument to a different Alexander, the metallurgist Holley, which sits in Manhattan’s Washington Square.
Skene and Holley have one other thing in common. Neither would have been immortalized without the not inconsiderable efforts of their peers. Skene’s statue was commissioned shortly after his death by a committee of New York doctors. It cost $5,000 and was paid for by donations from colleagues and former patients. The first plea for donations went out to the alumni of Long Island College, where Skene had been a professor.
Behind the bust, on the marble wall, is the inscription:
ALEXANDER J. C. SKENE M.D.
OF THE LONG
Below the bust, on the pedestal, it says:
ULSTER CO. N. Y.
Dr. Skene was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, on June 17, 1838. He came to America to study medicine and served in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was a longtime professor at Long Island College, acquiring numerous accolades and writing more than 200 scholarly articles. His primary claim to fame was the identification of the paraurethral glands, also known as Skene’s glands. He died July 4, 1900.
He also was something of an amateur sculptor, and he made a bust of J. Marion Sims, considered to be the father of modern gynecology, that can still be seen in the lobby of the offices of the Medical Society of Kings County, 480 77th Street. A larger statue of Sims is in Central Park at East 103rd Street.
Dr. Kathleen Powderly, in a 2002 issue of the Magazine of the SUNY Downstate Medical Center, added one interesting anecdote. M.L. Emery, one of the two architects credited with designing the marble stele, married Skene’s widow in 1903, three years after the doctor’s death but three years before the statue was unveiled. He was 38, she was 60. The family refused to talk to the press about the relationship at the time.
The statue of Skene has been refurbished twice by the city, once in 1936 and again in 1997. Skene’s statue has suffered more than the indignity of more than a century exposed to the elements. Twice in recent years an eccentric vandal has painted the bust green.
Updated September 2007, SIRIS 76003596, NYCS 114