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James Marion Sims

Born 1813
Died 1883

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American gynaecologist, born January 25, 1813, Lancaster County, South Carolina; died November 13, 1883, New York.

Biography of James Marion Sims

“The father of American gynaecology”

James Marion Sims was a famous pioneer in American gynaecology. He is chiefly remembered for his vaginal speculum, his operational approach to vesico-vaginal fistula, and the lithotomy-position, called Sim’s position.

James Marion Sims’ father was a descendant of English colonist, his mother was of Scottish/Irish origin. He commenced his medical studies at Charleston Medical School in 1833, and from 1834 at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, where he graduated in 1835. He subsequently settled for a short time as a physician at his home district, Lancaster, and in 1835 moved to Mount Meigs, Montgomery County, Alabama. Five years later he settled the capital of Alabama, Montgomery, where he spent the years until 1853. That year he moved to New York, where he remained for the rest of his life, except for the years he spent abroad.

In 1846 he had established a private gynaecological clinic in Montgomery. Called to see a country woman who had incurred a retroversion of the uterus in a fall from a horse, Sims observed that examination and correction were facilitated by a lateral positioning of the patient. The adoption of this position, the subsequent invention of a special curved speculum and use of silver sutures and a silver catheter (recommended in 1852 and 1858), soon allowed Sims to operate successfully for vesicovaginal fistula, a frequent and distressing complication of childbirth seen particularly among the poor. He saw his first serious case of fistula in a female patient who had the base of her bladder destroyed by a lengthy and difficult labour.

Sim’s procedure (Sims' operation) was so successful that it was soon adopted world-wide. In 1849 he reported the first complete cure. After demonstrating his operation to surgeons in New York, he set up what was possibly the first woman's hospital to deal specifically with gynaecological surgery.

In New York, too, his aim was to establish a gynaecological hospital, and in 1855 was able to open a provisional/temporary hospital. Eventually, in 1866, Woman Hospital for the State of New York was opened, a hospital build according to his concept of pavilions.

In 1861, he travelled to Europe, demonstrating his operation in Edinburgh, London, Paris, Brussels and Dublin, receiving several awards.

    “Here I am again in my beloved Dublin", he wrote in his autobiography, where he was "dined and fêted to satiety".
Visiting the leading hospitals of the old world, Sims took a particular interest in how they were designed. Sims stayed for a particularly long period of time in Paris, and in 1868 returned to the USA without his family. In 1870 he went to France once more, and during the Prussian-Franco war distinguished himself as a surgeon member of the Anglo American Ambulance Corps. He remained active on the war theatre until one month after the battle of Sedan, assisted by Sir William McCormack (born 1836) -and Phil. Frank.

J Marion Sims continued practising as a surgeon right up to his death in 1883. Within weeks after the death of Dr. James Marion Sims, a suggestion was made in the Medical Record that a statue be erected in his memory. The fame of Dr. Sims was so widespread that a committee was assembled to facilitate the matter. The Sims statue was the first ever to be erected in the United States in honour of a physician and stands today in Bryant Park in New York City. It was erected in 1894.

Despite all his honours, Sims is not an uncontroversial figure. We have received several letters pointing out that he "operated on African slave women without the benefit of anesthesia just to improve his gynecological techniques", and that credit should be given to the black women who suffered and died from his research.

An inscription near his birthplace reads:

"Birthplace of James Marion Sims, m.d.
James Marion Sims, world famed physician
father of modern gynecology
a blessing and a benefactor to women
was born in the farm house of his parents
near this site January 25, 1813
doctor to empress and slave alike
founder of woman's hospital
of the state of New York
knight of the legion of honor of France
honored by european and american governments
he died in the city of New York
November 13, 1883
erected by Lancaster County, 1949
sponsored by Waxhaws chapter, d.a.r."

    Let man learn to be honest and do the right thing or do nothing.

    My hands are then henceforth, washed of chloroform and devoted to ether.
    Letter to his wife, November 21, 1861. In The Story of my Life, Appendix A.


We thank Betsy Katz for information submitted.

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