Remembering Past Greats: James Marion Sims

Author Information

Pai K.
(Asst Hon.,Department of OBGYN, Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya Shatabdi Municipal General Hospital, Mumbai, India.)

Dr. J. M. Sims ((1813-1883) is widely considered as ‘Father of modern gynecology’. The first instrument taught to undergraduates is the Sims speculum and ‘Enumerate the contributions of Sims to the field of OBGYN’ is one of the favorite questions amongst undergraduate and postgraduate examiners. The recent news of the statue of James Marion Sims being moved from a prominent location at Central Park, opposite the New York Academy of Medicine to the location of Sims’ grave in Brooklyn prompted me to write this article to review whether he rightly fits the space under ‘Past Greats’. 
The New York Public Design commission considered Dr. Sims to be a ‘symbol of hate’. Dr. Sims performed medical experiments on enslaved black women using no anesthesia. He not only invented the Sims speculum but also devised an operation for vesico-vaginal fistula. The stories of his experiments done at an 8-bedded hospital in the slave-trading district of Montgomery, Alabama placed among white plantation settlements, whose owners treated black women as slaves, were well documented in his autobiography. Was Sims simply one of the men of his time who conformed to the social norms existent then? He was one of the few men of those times who treated females when they were considered not even worthy of examination. The use of anesthesia was also uncommon among many surgeons of those times. So should he be given the benefit of the doubt? He perfected his ‘art’ of vesico-vaginal fistula repair on these helpless black enslaved women before using them on white women with use of anesthesia. Sometimes he performed as many as 30 surgeries on a single woman. Sims has himself described the experiments he tried on Lucy, Anarcha and Betsey; the three women whose names are inked in history.[1]
The story of Sims is important and relevant in present times when consent and adherence to ethical guidelines (Declaration of Helsinki) are sacrosanct. The race to greatness and fame for a clinician/ research should not be at the cost of human suffering. The ‘guinea pig’ approach to learning surgery and other aspects of medicine needs to change. The Drug Technical Advisory Board (DTAB), has endorsed adoption of GCP guidelines for streamlining the clinical studies in India which would be useful to Research Institutions, Investigators, Institutional Ethics Committee (IEC) in providing desired direction, protection of rights and welfare of human subjects of biomedical research.[2] 

  2. Good Clinical Practice (GCP) Guidelines for Clinical Trials on Pharmaceuticals Products in India Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO), DGHS, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, New Delhi, December 2001. 

Pai K. Remembering Past Greats: James Marion Sims. JPGO 2018 Volume 5 Number 6. Available from: