One «Both» Sex«es»: Observations, Suppositions, and Airy Speculations on Fetal Sex Anatomy in British Scientific Literature, 1794–1871

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Abstract

The hegemony of the two-sex paradigm in the European scientific imagination and wider culture did not automatically equate to the hegemony of two discrete genders. In fact, two sexes facilitated a variety of gender choices: two singular and a number of double or otherwise intersexed (most commonly referred to as “hermaphrodite” or “bisexual” in its anatomical sense). This article explores some key British medical and allied scientific texts, with reference to associated Continental literature, as a means of illustrating the complexity of the two-sex paradigm and the unexpected transformation of gender possibilities that it helped produce through the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century. Discourses surrounding the first direct observations of the earliest development of fetal urinogenital anatomy were pivotal. The prevailing view that the incipient embryo was sexually undifferentiated (a paragon of the one-sex paradigm) was challenged by the Edinburgh anatomist Robert Knox, initially as he sought to bolster his professional reputation at the height of the Burke and Hare “body-snatching” scandal. Knox suggested that every embryo began life in an essentially dual-sexed state, an individual's sex anatomy depending on the greater or lesser development of component female and male structures. Greater clarification on the contested status of the homology—hermaphrodite distinction was achieved with the discovery of the early co-existence of the excretory duct of the Wolffian body (mesonephric duct) and the Müllerian duct (paramesonephric duct), an observation that made anatomical bisexuality difficult to ignore. The nineteenth-century's greatest champion of primordial hermaphroditism was Charles Darwin who was pivotal in phylogenizing the principle and establishing the premise that (in his own words) “Every man & woman is hermaphrodite,” a foundation stone of late-nineteenth-century sexology.

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