Gynecologist, surgeon. Sims was born near Hanging Rock Creek, Lancaster District, on January 25, 1813, and named Marion in honor of General Francis Marion, the famous “Swamp Fox” of the Revolutionary War. He pursued a bachelor’s degree at South Carolina College, graduating in 1832. His father, John Sims, despite disapproving of his son’s decision to study medicine, arranged for him to be an apprentice under the preceptor Dr. Churchill Jones before enrollment at the Medical College of South Carolina in Charleston in 1833. After another short spell as an apprentice, Sims completed the requirements for the M.D. at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, in May 1835. Returning to Lancaster District, he married Eliza Theresa Jones in 1836. The couple had at least five children. Sims had a disastrous start to his medical career with the death of his first two infant patients. Disheartened, he migrated to Alabama, where he eventually established a successful practice in Montgomery and gained a reputation for bold surgical interventions in cases of cross-eye, clubfoot, harelip, and tumors of the jaw.
Between 1844 and 1849, a time he described as his “memorable era,” Sims developed a surgical method for the repair of a debilitating condition known as vesico-vaginal fistula. Having previously shunned the practice of obstetrics and gynecology, Sims encountered his first case of vesico-vaginal fistula following his assistance at the protracted labor and childbirth of a seventeen-year-old slave girl named Anarcha in 1845. During the same period he located other female slaves with the same condition, expanding the capacity of his backyard slave hospital from eight to sixteen beds to cope with this increase in patients. During the performance of more than thirty operations on Anarcha alone, Sims designed various instruments, the most notable of which were his speculum and wire sutures, and operative procedures including the eponymous genupectoral or “Sims” position.
Having perfected his surgery in the repeated experiments on his slave patients, Sims sought to make his breakthrough known to the wider medical profession and available to lucrative paying patients. Despite debilitating bouts of diarrhea, he managed to dictate an article detailing his surgical research on vesico-vaginal fistula, which was published in the American Journal of Medical Sciences in 1853. In that same year Sims and his family moved from Montgomery to New York and set up home on Madison Avenue. Building a successful medical practice was another matter, for as he recorded in his autobiography, in New York he “had no friends, no influence, no health and nothing to recommend me to business.” Sims’s solution to this situation came in repeating one of the keys to his professional self-making in Montgomery: establishing a charity hospital under his control for the instruction of fellow physicians. The Woman’s Hospital opened at 83 Madison Avenue on May 4, 1855, and later expanded to new premises on Forty-ninth and Fiftieth Streets and chartered as the Woman’s Hospital of the State of New York.
In 1861 Sims left the United States for Europe, allegedly because of the discomfort he felt as a southerner in New York during the Civil War. Visiting medical centers such as Edinburgh, London, and Paris, Sims displayed his “peculiar method of operation” to many observers. He also acquired an elite referral practice that included members of the aristocracy, such as the duchess of Hamilton, the empress Eugenie, and the empress of Austria. Sims returned to New York in 1868 but maintained consultation rooms in Paris and London. In Paris in 1870, he was appointed chief surgeon of the Anglo-American Ambulance Corps for treating casualties in the Franco-Prussian War. He was made president of the American Medical Association in 1875, became a founding member of the American Gynecological Society in 1877, and was made that society’s president in 1880. Sims died in New York on November 13, 1883, of coronary artery disease and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
Up until the 1970s historical narratives of Sims’s career were largely favorable. Indeed, it would be fair to say that Sims was celebrated and revered in medical histories in much the same way as he was memorialized in the numerous monuments erected after his death, as both the “Father of Gynecology” and the savior of suffering womanhood. However, with the rise of women’s history, the social history of medicine, and African American history in the early 1970s, Sims’s career received a thorough reconsideration from the perspective of his slave, pauper, and female patients. While traditional medical historians continued their attempts to minimize the damage to Sims’s reputation, the overwhelming academic historiographical consensus became that Sims was self-serving, exploitative, dangerous, and unethical in many of his surgical experiments.
Harris, Seale. Woman’s Surgeon: The Story of J. Marion Sims. New York: Macmillan, 1950.
McGregor, Deborah Kuhn. Sexual Surgery and the Origins of Gynecology: J. Marion Sims, His Hospital, and His Patients. New York: Garland, 1989.
Sims, James Marion. The Story of My Life. 1884. Reprint, New York: DaCapo, 1968.