The controversial founder of Women’s Hospital

At the time of his death in 1893, there was no controversy at all: Dr. J. Marion Sims was heralded as a surgical pioneer and a hero—thought of so highly, a statue memorializing him went up a year later in Bryant Park.

Sims’ achievement: He developed an operation that repaired vesico-vaginal fistulas—tears in the vaginal wall that often resulted during childbirth.

Women who suffered from them became invalids and outcasts because the tear allowed urine to leak constantly from the body. They’re unheard of now, except in the developing world.

After perfected his technique in the South, Sims came to New York and opened Women’s Hospital in 1855, the first women’s hospital in the country.

“Located on Madison Avenue and 29th Street in a rented, four-story house, the hospital’s 30 beds were quickly filled,” states St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Medical Center, which absorbed Women’s Hospital in 1964.

“In those early days, Sims operated without assistance from other doctors, performing one fistula repair each day.”

Sims shared his technique with doctors worldwide. In New York, Women’s Hospital outgrew its Madison Avenue digs and relocated to Park Avenue and 51st Street, then 109th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

Today his statue is at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street. Yet last year, a city councilwoman pushed to have it removed.

Why? Because Sims developed his surgery on female slaves in the South, and he didn’t use anesthesia—and modern-day critics have labeled him as racist and sexist because of this.

[Sims statue: Photo via Central Park Conservatory]

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5 Responses to “The controversial founder of Women’s Hospital”

  1. aspicco Says:

    Yeah this guy IS a mixed bag, but the common use of anesthesia didn’t really happen until the later 1800s, after the Civil War. And yes, only using slaves could be construed as racist, but how can he be termed sexist? Was he supposed to work on men’s vaginal fistulas?

  2. East Harlem Preservation Says:

    Yes, the Nazis made a lot of medical advances too. aspicco, even Western women have historically been subjected to more atrocities and indignities then their male counterparts. These barbaric experiments have never ended as western medical “pioneers” still carry on in other parts of the world: http://www.democracynow.org/2010/10/5/the_dark_history_of_medical_experimentation.

  3. Beth Says:

    That physically tested his theories female slaves first does imply that he considered them more as lab animals than human beings but Aspicco makes an interesting point about the use of anesthesia. I wonder at what point he started operating on Caucasian women and if anesthesia was more prevalent at that time. I don’t know the answer…

  4. Lynn Says:

    My Son was delivered in ‘Women’s Hospital’ – but on Amsterdam & 114th St – same Founder?

  5. wildnewyork Says:

    Yes. Women’s Hospital moved to Amsterdam and 109th Street at some point after it outgrew its previous home. See the postcard above.

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