J. Marion Sims, MD, is the most decorated surgeon in American history and the only American surgeon with a life-sized statue in a purely public place. He is considered the father of the surgical specialty of gynecology. Many surgeons are familiar with the Sims position, the Sims speculum, and other innovations in gynecologic surgery that bear his name.
Early influences and contributions
Born in Lancaster, SC, in 1813, Dr. Sims studied for two years at the University of South Carolina, Charleston. Against his parents’ wishes, he chose medicine as a career and apprenticed in the office of a local doctor. At age 20, he attended a three-month course of lectures at the new South Carolina Medical College, now the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston. In 1833, following a one-week stagecoach ride, he enrolled at the new Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, PA, where he received his medical degree and where he was strongly influenced by mentors George McClellan, MD, and Granville Pattison, MD, leading to his focus on surgery.
He returned to Lancaster to practice, but was so dismayed by the deaths of two patients that he physically walked to a new beginning near Montgomery, AL, where he began his practice anew. It was at this new location that Dr. Sims started to bloom with a flourishing practice focused primarily on surgery. A number of slave women were brought to him with the devastating problem of vesico-vaginal fistula caused by prolonged, unattended labor. He attempted to treat the condition with a variety of unsuccessful techniques until a jeweler fashioned silver into wire, at Dr. Sims’ direction, for use in repair for a woman named Anarcha. Thus began his road to fame through a focus on gynecologic surgery. Gynecology was not a recognized specialty at the time, and the use of anesthesia was just evolving.
Pioneering efforts in cancer treatment
In 1853, suffering from unrelenting dysentery and in an attempt to improve the state of his health, he relocated to New York, NY. There, his health improved, his abilities were recognized, and his focus on gynecology flourished. He established the Woman’s Hospital of New York, the first of its kind, which became an incubator for progressive concepts in surgery. Years later—noting that cancer patients could not be admitted to hospitals due to the misconception that cancer was a communicable disease—Dr. Sims opened the New York Cancer Hospital, which evolved over time into the Memorial Hospital for Cancer and Allied Diseases (now known as Memorial Sloan Kettering).
His reputation continued to grow both nationally and internationally. He operated in the U.S. and in Europe. He was widely decorated and acclaimed, serving as president of the American Medical Association in 1875 and the American Gynecological Society in 1879. He has been recognized as the father of the specialties of gynecology and infertility.
Dr. Sims, who died in 1883, was an inquisitive innovator, an able and talented surgeon, and a humanitarian. It has been said that he advanced surgery as much or perhaps more than any other U.S. surgeon who lived in the 19th century.
Today, there are some health care scholars who may discredit parts of our heritage, largely based on a lack of information. Therefore, when remembering historical pioneers and their achievements, it is important to note the circumstances of that particular period of history. Some have written that because Dr. Sims operated on slave women without anesthesia or proper informed consent, he should be disclaimed rather than applauded. However, that view misses the point of what Dr. Sims accomplished in the mid-19th century. Anarcha and others should be celebrated for their contributions just as Henrietta Lacks—an African-American woman whose cells were unwittingly used to create the first human immortal cell line in the 1950s—has been acknowledged for her role in the evolution of medicine.
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