A Dr. J. Marion Sims Dossier Essay, Research Paper
the immortalized on the Alabama Capitol grounds is a 19th century physician known as the
father of gynecology. Represented by the second of two bronze sculptures facing Dexter
Avenue on the right of the marble steps, Dr. James Marion Sims invented procedures,
instruments, and techniques that helped the spectrum of female diseases to become
recognized as a separate field of medicine. His monument was erected in 1939 by the
Alabama Medical Association. Capitol Curator Melanie Betz notes that a concerted effort to
beautify the state house surroundings coincided with the end of the Depression.
Unfortunately, the name of the sculptor could not be found.
There is, however, much available information on this interesting doctor
of medicine. Born in Lancaster County, South Carolina, in 1813, Sims attended the
Charleston Medical College and completed his training at Jefferson Medical College in
Philadelphia. He practiced briefly in his native state before moving to Mount Meigs,
Alabama, in 1835.
His autobiography, The Story of My Life (published in 1884;
reprinted in 1968), reveals a man of paradox who was modest yet self-assured, sickly yet
energetic, seemingly without specific goals yet capable of tremendous concentration.
Before he ingeniously devised an instrument – based on a bent-handled spoon – with which a
woman’s pelvic organs could be viewed, Sims was a general practitioner and surgeon who
preferred to work on clubfeet and crossed eyes. According to a 1937 article in the
Montgomery Advertiser by then Alabama Archives Director Peter A. Brannon, Dr. Sims and his
wife Theresa built a "log house of two stories and some pretensions" east of
Line Creek on the old Federal Road. They moved to Montgomery in 1840, where the doctor’s
first patients were a family of free Negroes. He soon had clients among the carriage trade
A 1930 address by Dr. Clarence Weil, on the occasion of the unveiling of a
bronze tablet marking the Montgomery office and infirmary of Dr. Sims, tells of the
honoree’s public thank you to the city in 1877, specifically to the "Crommelins and
Pollards who gave me houses to live in until I was able to provide one for myself."
His office and small eight bed infirmary were on the East side of Perry Street between
Washington and Dexter Avenue.
Edmond Souchon, M. D., writing in 1896 in the American Surgical
Association, expresses his elation on seeing "the forever famous little hospital in
which he [Sims] experimented upon [slave women] Lucy, Betsey, Anarcha, and finally cured
them; the hardware store where he bought the legendary pewter spoon from which developed
the great and celebrated duck-bill speculum; the jeweler’s store where the first silver
wire for sutures was drawn…" Brannon’s article pinpoints the hardware store as
Hall, Moses and Roberts, located at what was later 104 Dexter Avenue; the jewelry store
was owned by a Mr. Swan at 108 Dexter.
Perhaps in response to criticism for what he himself candidly described as
experiments on slave women, Dr. Sims noted in his autobiography: "I kept these
Negroes at my own expense…I succeeded in inspiring my patients with confidence they
would be cured eventually; they would not have felt that confidence if I had not felt
confident, too…I trained my patients to assist me in the operations."
The point has been made that Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey did indeed suffer
from a chronic, embarrassing condition. Also to his credit, Sims informed their owners
that the women could not be expected to work while they were in his care. And once he came
up with the idea of using silver wire instead of silk sutures, all three were effectively
cured in the summer of 1849.
Sims moved to New York in 1852, stating the Alabama climate didn’t agree
with him. He had caught malaria within a year of his arrival, and other illnesses plagued
him throughout his time here. He refused to submit to a country doctor’s favorite
procedure of blood-letting, insisting that "Those who were bled and purged died the
quickest." He credits a Montgomery druggist with saving his life on one occasion
simply by giving him brandy, quinine, and caring attention. Members of his family were
frequently ill. A little son Merry, who was born on Christmas Day, 1845, died in 1848 and
is buried in Oakwood Cemetery.
Others believe Sims left the South to advance his career. He would later
claim to have departed the country for an extended tour of Europe in 1861 because he
needed "a little holiday," but according to biographical material from his
Pennsylvania alma mater: "Upon the start of the Civil War, Dr. Sims fled to Europe,
leveling anti-southern sentiment against him." The travels abroad brought him acclaim
from foreign governments.
He wasn’t above trying miracle cures on himself, such as water from one
Cooper’s Well, even though he had to go to Clinton, Mississippi, to get it. His wife found
that her husband’s most bothersome ailment could be relieved by combining this curative
water with a dish of salted pickle pork. Although Sims arrived in New York with a supply
of both remedies, his physical struggles continued; he even "fell out with
sunstroke" on Fifth Avenue. Moreover, he had to struggle against a solid wall of
professional jealousy: "I was called a quack and a humbug, and the hospital
pronounced a fraud."
This was the famous Women’s Hospital he was instrumental in founding,
which opened in New York in 1855 and became the paradigm for others of its kind.
Eventually, Sims rose above his detractors to gain the respect of his colleagues. He
served as President of the American Medical Association in 1875-76. Three states claim
him: South Carolina where he was born, Alabama where he made his initial contributions,
and New York, where his dreams were realized and where he died in 1888.
The Sims statue in Bryant Park in New York City was the first ever to be
erected in the United States in honor of a physician.
The following, from an article by Stanley Aronson, M.D., in the August,
1994 issue of Rhode Island Medicine, is indicative of the respect this pioneer
physician still commands in the profession: "Sims was a complex man, not easily
understood; but no one appreciative of the devastating effects of incontinence could
possibly diminish his contributions to the health and dignity of women."
Judy Oliver is the author of a number of books and articles about the
South, and lives in Montgomery.
Living Online Magazine. Copyright ? 1999, 2000 Magazine of Montgomery Living.
Online Source: http://www.montgomeryliving.com/alabama/statue.html
J. Marion Sims: One Among Many Monumental Mistakes
by Wendy Brinker
Copyright 2000. Wendy Brinker, Columbia, South Carolina.
The controversy over the Confederate flag has brought the scrutiny of
the world to South Carolina. It has exposed
old racist wounds in a place where blacks and whites have always lived a jagged, grossly
South Carolina’s struggle to reconcile its history is far from over. There are reminders
everywhere of the harsh,
shameful reality of slavery. The stigma of that fateful era reaches to us from the depths
of centuries and is
ever-present in the undercurrent of both sides of the debate.
Pharaohs believed that as long as their likeness or name existed somewhere, they lived on.
Having one’s legacy
preserved in stone is perhaps an expression of the human desire for immortality or the
immortalization of an idea.
The statehouse grounds in Columbia, South Carolina is wrought with statues of men whose
contributions have been
deemed worthy of homage. Their tributes stand tall among the well-manicured beds for
future generations to
ponder. Nestled on the shady northwest corner at the intersection of Assembly and Gervais
Streets, stands an
impressive monument honoring J. Marion Sims, a South Carolinian from Lancaster County,
curiously dubbed "The
Father of Gynecology."
The monument itself is one of the largest on the grounds. Center stage, in front of a
large cement archway, is a
bronze bust of Sims, looking down with crooked brow and patronly grin. Directly beneath
his image is a quote from
Hippocrates, "Where the love of man is, there is also the love of art." Etched
in a panel to the left, an inscription
touts, "The first surgeon of the ages in ministry to women, treating alike empress
and slave." On the panel to the
right, the inscription continues, "He founded the science of gynecology, was honored
in all lands and died with the
benediction of mankind."
What an epitaph. What had this guy done to deserve such accolades? My efforts to acquaint
myself with Dr. Sims
began innocently enough on the Internet. After locating several articles and books
praising the good doctor, one
article seemed out of place. It was an academic paper entitled, "Human
Experimentation: Before the Nazi Era and
After." South Carolina’s opinion of Dr. James Marion Sims was being vehemently
opposed by some outside
sources. But this is no real buck in the trend for southern historians. South Carolina’s
opinion of itself is often
diametrically opposed to that of the outside world’s. This is evidenced by South
Carolina’s portrayal of the entire
Civil War, or rather, their rendition of "The War of Northern Aggression."
By South Carolina’s account, Dr. Sims innovated techniques and developed instruments that
changed the landscape
of women’s reproductive health. By another account, he had a reputation for being an
absolute monster. Without
regard for human suffering, he performed excruciating, experimental operations on captive
women, leaving a swath
of misery and death in his wake. What is not in dispute is that between 1845 and 1849, in
a makeshift hospital he
built in his backyard, Sims inaugurated a long, drawn-out series of gynecological
operations on countless enslaved
African women. He performed over 34 experimental operations on a single woman for a
prolapsed uterus. This was
all done without the benefit of anesthesia or before any type of antiseptic was used.
After suffering unimaginable
pain, many lost their lives to infection. It is their story that history has failed to
tell and their legacy that should be
honored, not their captor’s.
By his own account, in an autobiography entitled, "The Story of My Life," Sims
felt himself quite unexceptional.
He was born in 1813 and received his higher education at Columbia College, predecessor of
University of South
Carolina, and received a BA in 1832. His father, John Sims, was a dominant figure in Sims’
early life. To his son’s
announcement of medicine as his profession, he replied, "To think that my son should
be going around from house
to house through this country, with a box of pills in one hand and a squirt in the other,
to ameliorate human
suffering, is a thought I never supposed I should have to contemplate." Mr. Sims
reluctantly sent his son to
apprentice under the tutelage of Dr. Churchill Jones. Once respected in the community, Dr.
Jones suffered from
chronic alcoholism. Although James Marion recalled him unfit to perform his duties, he
observed the failing doctor
perform many surgeries and deliver many lectures. Inspired to become a surgeon, an
insecure Sims left for
Charleston Medical College in November of 1833. He admits, "I was afraid to be a man;
I was afraid to assume its
responsibilities and thought that I did not have sense enough to go out into the rough
world, making a living as
other men had to do."
He was unprepared for the rigors of Charleston Medical College. While there, he forged, by
his own description, an
intimate friendship with a fellow classmate and they agreed to attend Jefferson Medical
College in Philadelphia for
their next term. It was there that Sims met another great influence in his life, Professor
George McClellan. He
describes him as, "very eccentric and erratic as a teacher… Not that he had much
system, but whatever he said
was to the point." In May of 1835, equipped with some surgical instruments and an
eight-volume medical text, Sims
returned to Lancaster ready to practice medicine. He had had no clinical experience,
logged no actual hospital time
and had no experience diagnosing illnesses.
Dr. Jones had since left the area. After weeks of sitting alone in a Main Street office
his father had rented, Dr. J.
Marion Sims got his first patient. It was the young son of a prominent citizen of
Lancaster. Sims documented,
"When I arrived I found a child about eighteen months old, very much emaciated, who
had what we would call the
summer complaint, or chronic diarrhea. I examined the child minutely from head to foot. I
looked at its gums, and
as I always carried a lancet with me and had surgical propensities, as soon as I saw some
swelling of the gums I at
once took out my lancet and cut the gums down to the teeth. This was good so far as it
went. But, when it came time
to making up a prescription, I had no more ideas of what ailed the child, or what to do
for it, than if I had never
Sims returned to his office and studied his medical text for any clue as to how to
proceed. The reference books
Sims relied on were by a professor at Jefferson, John Eberle, who was known for his
unorthodox approach to
medicine. He drew from various schools of thought, including the use of leeches. Sims
administered a haphazard
regimen of prescriptions to the child, going from chapter to chapter in Eberle’s books,
but to no avail. After only a
few days, the infant died. Sims’ second case came only two weeks after the first. It was
another infant with the
same symptoms. Sims retracted the gums and administered another series of treatments, this
time starting at the
last chapter and working backwards in the book. He accomplished the same result. Sims
lamented, " I had the
misfortune to lose my first two patients, and the thought of it was too terrible to be
borne. I had never heard of such
terrible luck, and never thought that such misfortune could ever happen to any young man
in the world."
In October of 1835, immediately after the death of the two infants, the elder Sims took
his son to Alabama. It is
unclear why the young doctor left Lancaster, but his reputation could not have been
favorable. After three weeks
by wagon, they made it as far as Mt. Meigs, Alabama. There were two doctors in Mt. Meigs
he apprenticed under.
One, a Dr. Charles Lucas, was a politician and had made his fortune from cotton. Sims was
impressed by the fact
that Lucas owned two to three hundred slaves and could exert his influence over the
community. The other was Dr.
Childers, an old-fashioned country doctor that allowed Sims to accompany him on his house
calls. After witnessing
Childers "bleed" a patient to death, one of his favorite cure-alls, Sims
admitted, "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
One month after his arrival, Sims bought out Dr. Childers’ practice for a two
hundred-dollar promissory note. His
first patient came to him when Dr. Lucas was away in Tuscaloosa on legislative business.
Sims was summoned 40
miles away to the home of another cotton farmer, whose sister had taken ill with fever
after delivering a child. The
attending doctor was present, but obviously drunk. Sims refused to take over the care of
the woman because once
again, he had no idea what treatment to administer. He returned to Mt. Meigs and the woman
died the day after he
departed. A month later, with Dr. Lucas still away, another request for a doctor came.
This time, on behalf of an
ailing slave overseer. Sims reluctantly mounted up and rode off to examine the man. He
found a lump inside his
abdomen and explained, "This is matter here and it must come out or this man will