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10 Notable Jefferson Alumni of the Past

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J. Marion Sims Portrait

J. Marion Sims

(1813-1883)
JMC Class of 1835

Known as the "Father of Modern American Gynecology," James Marion Sims discovered the knee-chest position that today bears his name and invented the Sims speculum by bending a kitchen spoon. In addition, Sims opened the first hospital solely dedicated to the treatment of women. By the time of his death, Sims was so renowned that the City of New York honored him by erecting a statue of him in Bryant Park - a first for an American physician. Honored by his colleagues and historians in the 19th and 20th centuries, modern historians have reevaluated his legacy with a critical eye as he represents the unquestioned hegemony of male Victorian physicians, whom seem unevolved alongside current medical ethics.

Born on 25 January 1813 in South Carolina, Sims graduated from South Carolina College in 1832. He attended Charleston Medical College during 1833 before coming to Jefferson Medical College in 1834. After graduating from Jefferson in 1835, Sims began his practice in South Carolina and then in 1840 moved to Alabama. From 1845-1849 he performed experimental surgery on approximately 14 enslaved women, including 30 surgeries on one woman alone. This work eventually led to a successful technique to repair vesicovaginal fistulas using silver wire sutures. In 1855, two years after moving to New York City from the south, Sims opened the first special hospital for the treatment of women's diseases in the world: Woman's Hospital, at 83 Madison Avenue.

During the Civil War, Sims lived and practiced in Europe with his family due to the anti-southern sentiment in the United States. He attended the poor and rich alike and even operated upon the Empress Eugenie, wife to Napoleon III. He returned to the US in 1868 and took the position of Chief Consulting Surgeon to the Women's Hospital in New York. While there he faced criticism from his colleagues for experimenting on Irish American immigrants. Sims eventually resigned in 1874 when the Board of Lady Managers voted to ban cancer surgery and limit the number of surgical spectators, decisions aimed specifically at Sims.

From 1875 to 1876, Sims served as president of the American Medical Association, then as president of the American Gynecological Society in 1880. In the last year of his life, Sims prepared an autobiography entitled The Story of My Life. Chapter eight of this book relates stories of his student days at Jefferson.

Sims died in New York City on 13 November 1883.