The controversial legacy of Jefferson University-educated 'father of gynecology'

To some, he was known as the “father of gynecology,” at the forefront of women’s health; to others, he was a butcher who operated on enslaved black women without anesthesia or consent.

J. Marion Sims, a 19th-century Philadelphia-educated surgeon, invented the speculum that bears his name by bending a spoon; pioneered surgery to repair a previously devastating complication of childbirth; and opened the first hospital dedicated to the treatment of women.

Now, as the controversy surrounding monuments to Confederate soldiers has captured the nation’s attention, Sims also has been thrust back into the spotlight.

There are six known statues honoring the surgeon in the United States, including a bust at his alma mater, Thomas Jefferson University.

The bust was moved to storage months ago and there are no plans to return it for display, spokeswoman Gail Benner said in an email. University officials did not return calls seeking comment as to why it was removed from view.

Last week, the word “RACIST” was spray painted on a Sims statue in Central Park across from the New York Academy of Medicine, where efforts to remove the figure have been ongoing for about a decade.

Recently, after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a review of any “symbols of hate on city property,” community leaders asked that the statue be added to the list, the New York Times reported.

In South Carolina, there have also been calls to remove the Sims statue from the Statehouse grounds. And a North Charleston doctor, Thaddeus John Bell, refused an award bearing Sims’ name, WISTV.com reported.

Sims’ story is a painful reminder of how far modern medical practices have come, Bell told the station.

Sims made his living as a physician to slaves on plantations in and around Mount Meigs, Ala.

In 1845, he became interested in gynecology after he corrected a retroverted — tilted — uterus in a patient. Sims also set out to cure vesicovaginal fistulas (VVF), incurable at the time. VVF occurred during prolonged childbirth when the fetus did not fit through the mother’s birth canal and trapped the mother’s bladder, cervix and vagina, cutting off blood supply to the tissues. If the mother lived, holes would develop, leaving the woman with constant urinary and fecal incontinence.

Camera icon Thomas Jefferson University Library
Dr. J. Marion Sims graduated from Thomas Jefferson Medical College in 1835.

Sims acquired 11 female slaves with the condition, promising their masters to “lodge, board and treat them.” During the next three years, he would repeatedly operate on them as the fistulas reopened. One woman was subjected to more than 30 surgeries without anesthesia, according to a 2012 article in the Jefferson Digital Commons.

Sims, who was elected president of the American Medical Association in 1876, also attempted to treat enslaved infants suffering from a bacterial infection now known as neonatal tetanus. Using a pointed shoemaker’s awl, often used for making holes in leather, he would pry the bones of their skulls into proper alignment, according to a 2000 article by activist Wendy Brinker.

In 1993, a Journal of Medical Ethics paper by Durrenda Ojanuga reported that Sims’ “fame and fortune were a result of unethical experimentation with powerless black women.”

However, considering the time and place of Sims’ life, a 2006 Journal of Medical Ethics article held back on condemning the surgeon. The journal found that claims that slaves were treated without their consent was not true. It was a time when both free whites and black slaves were involved in medical experiments.

The journal stated that while black women were considered property under Southern law, there was no proof they were unwilling patients of Sims. According to his writings, Sims would only perform the procedure with the patient’s permission.

Sims, the journal reported, also performed the surgery on white women. In one case study of a white patient, he detailed the three surgeries needed to correct the condition, all done without anesthesia, which was not in use when Sims began operating on fistulas.

Even 10 years later, chloroform wasn’t considered necessary for the surgery.