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 Dr J Marion Sims
The Father of Modern Gynecology

From the J. Marion Sims Foundation we get the following (along with this portrait of the good doctor):

The J. Marion Sims Foundation takes its name from one of Lancaster County’s most distinguished historical figures. Dr. James Marion Sims was one of the most famous physicians of his time, renowned as a surgical genius and as one of the founders of operative gynecology. He practiced briefly in Lancaster before moving his practice to Alabama, and later to New York City.

His patients included Empress Eugenie of France, wife of Napoleon III, Scotland’s Duchess of Hamilton, and the Empress of Austria. He was called on to administer surgical treatment to President James A. Garfield after he was shot in 1881. Dr. Sims served as president of the American Medical Association in 1876, as president of the International Medical Congress in 1877, and as president of the American Gynecological Society in 1880.

Born in 1813 in what is now Heath Springs, Dr. Sims has been widely honored in his native state. A monument is dedicated to him on the State House grounds in Columbia, and the Medical University of South Carolina has established the J. Marion Sims Chair in Obstetrics-Gynecology. A dormitory at the University of South Carolina is named for Dr. Sims and Lancaster County’s first countywide hospital was named the Marion Sims Memorial Hospital.

Dr. Sims died in 1883. Several oil portraits of him and his family members are displayed in the Foundation offices, as are some of his original surgical instruments.

However, according to Wendy Brinker, an artist and activist, honoring Sims is a "monumental mistake" for many reasons, including his medical experiments on slave women, many of whom suffered and died as the result of his work. She also claims that Sims attributed the cause of disease among the slaves to moral weakness and did nothing to improve the conditions in which the slaves lived. [http://www.coax.net/people/lwf/jm_sims.htm]

There are numerous articles on the web about Dr Sims, but the most enlightening document is his own biography, which I found at the Minneapolis Public Library. It is called The Story of My Life, and was published in 1884.

In his autobiography, Dr Sims recalls his ambivalent route into medicine. He studied under a surgeon who was an alcoholic. His first solo contact with a patient resulted in his bleeding a child, but when it came time for him to prescribe a nostrum, he recalls: "I had no more ideas of what ailed the child, or what to do for it, than if I had never studied medicine." In fact, the most telling paragraph in his biography, one that is most often quoted when referring to the good doctor is the following:

I knew nothing about medicine, but I had sense enough to see that doctors were killing their patients; that medicine was not an exact science; that it was wholly empirical, and that it would be better to trust entirely to Nature than to the hazardous skills of the doctors.

One of the most balanced criticisms of Dr Sims is called J. Marion Sims: Man or Monster – Can We Judge a 19th Century Scientist By 21st Century Standards?

In our look at history, it has been hard NOT to judge it harshly, since so many lives were destroyed by ignorance. Ignorance and prejudice. The experiments conducted by Sims could easily be compared to the experiments of Dr Mengele, except that Mengele knew exactly what he was doing. Sims didn’t have a clue, as he was born and raised in a clueless time.

We know that Sims knew about anesthesia, for when Dr Crawford Long came under attack for using ether during surgery, it was Dr Sims who turned out to be one of his staunchest supporters. If you’ll recall in our tongue-in-cheek essay The History of Anesthesia, our religious roots led to the belief that pain was simply a part of life and that was all there was to it. To relieve pain or avoid pain during surgery was frowned upon by many Calvinists.

At the time, African Americans were thought to be sub-human. They couldn’t feel pain like the Caucasians could. Knowing his support for anesthesia, we assume that Dr Sims used anesthesia when conducting his experimental surgeries. Wrong. He experimented on slaves.

Dr Sims was the first physician to actually view the genitalia of his women patients. The morals of the time allowed a physician to palpate the area only. However, propriety went out the window when working on slave women, so he examined them while they kneeled on all fours, up on his examination table. He used, according to some accounts, a modified shoehorn as a speculum. He operated without the aid of anesthesia. Most of his patients used for his experiments died nameless and faceless, many of them suffering for weeks before being relieved by death. Those who survived became addicted to the drugs Sims furnished them to keep their groans and moans to a minimum. The slave women of the time left no written record of their torture, since reading or writing was punishable by death if you were a Negro slave.

One of his patients, a slave by the name of Anarcha, underwent 34 experimental operations on Sims’s table. Two other slaves mentioned in his biography were Lucy and Betsy. Though faceless, these three are not nameless. Their place in history should not be lost, and to insure this, we’ve created a web site honoring Anarcha as one of the Mothers of Gynecology.

As for the good Doctor Sims, no, we shall not judge him as a monster. He was simply a part of his time, a sad time of prejudice and ignorance. He did the best he could given his tools; the philosophical, educational, and scientific tools of his time.

However, we’re not about to call him a hero either, nor will we erect statues in his name as so many southern towns have. His surgical acumen is still in question today, whether he truly contributed to the knowledge and treatment of women is also still in doubt. What isn’t in doubt, what is obviously moot, is that Dr Sims was a part of his time and a part of his culture. He was a post civil war physician who did as best he could.


Our thanks to the J Marion Sims Foundation for the use of their image.

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