Father of Gynecology?

By Aditi Malhotra

The statue on Fifth Avenue and 103 Street was erected in 1894. (Central Park Conservancy)

On the northern end of Central Park, a bronze and granite statue of a man with a royal stance and a subtle grimace stands strong on a stone pedestal. The statue, over three decades old, honors James Marion Sims, often heralded as the father of modern gynecology. His accomplishments are etched on the supporting piers on either side.

The South Carolina-born surgeon is best known today for a surgical tool he developed in the mid-19 century to treat a troublesome injury in the urinary tract that women are prone to during childbirth. The injury is an abnormal opening between the bladder and the vagina that typically results in women losing bladder control. The damage causes a continuous, involuntary flow of urine into the vaginal vault and, without corrective surgery, women suffering from it can end up incontinent for life.

Sims Speculum. (Wikimedia Commons)

Sims is attributed with the invention of the vaginal speculum, an instrument he used to carry out a rather uncomfortable function so he could fix the hold between the bladder and the vagina. Gynecologists across the world today use an evolved version of the speculum to conduct pelvic exams in women. When Sims first used it in 1845, it was nothing more than a bent spoon. In his autobiography, The Story of My Life, Sims describes what the peep inside a patient’s vagina looked like: “I saw everything no man had ever seen before…I said at once, ‘Why can not these things be cured?’”

By 1855 Sims had founded the first women’s hospital in the U.S., in New York City. And in the years that followed, he traveled to countries including France, Italy and Germany to demonstrate his surgical techniques and to guide the establishment of women’s hospitals.

Despite his medical authority and achievements, some contemporary scholars have raised objections to Sims’ statue. Their grievance arises from the fact that Sims’ allegedly carried out his early experiments on slave women. There is also speculation that Sims kept these patients captive in the back of his hospital in Alabama and performed trial procedures without anesthesia. Many in the medical community have dismissed his legacy, calling on city authorities to remove the statue. During a demonstration in 2016, some neighborhood residents held placards that said “Not Our Statue” and covered Sims’ engraved achievements with white paper.

 

 

 

 

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