Book Review – Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex #History #Science #Social

Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex by Alice Domerat Dreger


Punctuated with remarkable case studies, this book explores extraordinary encounters between hermaphrodites–people born with “ambiguous” sexual anatomy–and the medical and scientific professionals who grappled with them. Alice Dreger focuses on events in France and Britain in the late nineteenth century, a moment of great tension for questions of sex roles. While feminists, homosexuals, and anthropological explorers openly questioned the natures and purposes of the two sexes, anatomical hermaphrodites suggested a deeper question: just how many human sexes are there? Ultimately hermaphrodites led doctors and scientists to another surprisingly difficult question: what is sex, really? Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex takes us inside the doctors’ chambers to see how and why medical and scientific men constructed sex, gender, and sexuality as they did, and especially how the material conformation of hermaphroditic bodies–when combined with social exigencies–forced peculiar constructions. Throughout the book Dreger indicates how this history can help us to understand present-day conceptualizations of sex, gender, and sexuality. This leads to an epilogue, where the author discusses and questions the protocols employed today in the treatment of intersexuals (people born hermaphroditic). Given the history she has recounted, should these protocols be reconsidered and revised? A meticulously researched account of a fascinating problem in the history of medicine, this book will compel the attention of historians, physicians, medical ethicists, intersexuals themselves, and anyone interested in the meanings and foundations of sexual identity.

4 stars.

I’d had this book on my shelf for ages, but I wish I’d picked it up before. The accounts are tragic (in some cases), interesting and well researched, but more than that this is a book which makes one think. What does it mean to be male or female? When are where does a person become either a man or a woman, and more importantly does it actually matter? How much of our sex and gender are biology and how much is societal? All the cases discussed were French or British cases from the Victorian era – when the gender roles were very distinct, and sexuality was far more rigidly enforced. Homosexuality was illegal and it was ‘one sex, one body’. A woman was a woman, and she loved men, produced babies and was mild, retiring and gentle. A man was a man, and he loved women, was the breadwinner, stronger, more forceful. So what happened when these lines were blurred?

Biology is complex, and the biology of sex even more so. What happened to the people who were both male or female, or neither? Was assigning a sex and forcing that person to live according to those social mores, or even finding someone was actually the other sex and making them change for the good of the person or to ‘protect’ society?

The book is a good insight into the trials of medicine, social expectations and the often difficult lives of the hermaphrodites themselves, although with the exception of one of the people there were no diaries of the hermaphrodites themselves.

Changes in attitude, definitions, and advances in medicine shifted boundaries, but many of the intersex persons had sad, confused lives – being forced to be a gender they did not identify with. Some lived as they chose, and damned what the doctors thought, and some ignored the ‘advice’. But it wasn’t easy.

Many of the issues are still relevant – fortunately Britain is more open-minded these days. There are equal rights in marriage for all, gay people, and intersex people can live (relatively) free lives without fear of prosecution or ostracism. But there are still discussions on transgender, sexual and gender identity and ‘normality’.

I’d recommend this book for those who are interested in the development of science, medicine, identity, social issues and Victorian history.


The Irish Giant -Patrick Cotter

I picked up this book via Southcart Books store on Ebay. So in part this post is a review, but also it’s a brief summary of the titular character’s remarkable life. Do check out Southcart Books, they have some great books.

The Irish Giant by G Frankcom. At first I thought it would be about the famous Irish Giant Charles Byrne, however to my delight I discovered it was actually about a gentleman called Patrick Cotter O’Brien (O’Brien was his show name).  This particular Irish Giant was contemporary with Byrne for some of his life but died long after him.

Patrick Cotter O’Brien (19 January 1760 – 8 September 1806) was the first of only thirteen people in medical history to stand at a verified height of eight feet (2.44 m) or more. O’Brien was born in Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland. His real name was Patrick Cotter and he adopted O’Brien as his stage name in the sideshow circus. He was also known as the Bristol Giant and the Irish Giant.’Brien

Yes you read that correctly – he stood at over 8ft tall. The first of only a handful of people to top 8ft tall.

He was afflicted by Giantism and acromegaly; when he died at the age of 46 no hearse could be found to accommodate his 9 ft coffin. He was carried to his grave by relays of 14 men, and he asked to be buried 12 feet under solid rock to discourage grave robbers – or ‘resurrection men’ exhuming him and selling his remains to a doctor.  Anatomists would often pay well for the recently dead – in order to dissect for their medical students. This was, technically, illegal, although hanged prisoners could be given to them. Such a fate terrified many people and with a body of such immense proportions it was a real risk for poor Mr Cotter. Later in his life he became increasingly disabled – as his conditions meant his joints etc. kept growing and he suffered from back pain, damaged joints and heart problems, among other problems.

Cotter made a decent living – financially at least . When he died his mother received over £2000 – a substantial sum in the early 19th Century (equivalent to as much as 150k today). Whether he was happy – living his life on show and plagued by the many problems related to his medical conditions, is another matter entirely. He made friends, by many accounts he was an intelligent and congenial man but there is only one, unsubstantiated, report of marriage.  He managed to find some privacy in a house he purchased but even so a man of his stature and renown would hardly be able to blend in.  However occasionally his extreme height was an advantage – he worked as a bricklayer and builder able to paint ceilings or tile some roofs without a ladder, and once his specially adapted coach was stopped by a highway. Who then fled in terror when an 8 foot tall man stepped out.

In the 1970s Cotter’s skeleting was rediscovered during the excavation of foundations for a building and interest in him renewed. His skeleton was examined – to find out the causes of his giantism. That’s basically what the book is about. Cotter’s life, death and rediscovery.

I really enjoyed the subject – the author had obviously done a great deal of research about Cotter, the particular medical issues he suffered and the exhumation of his remains. Many of the sources are contradictory (especially as there were, remarkably, a couple of other ‘Irish Giants’ about at the same time.  The author discusses the sources and the contradictions and tries to find the most consistent and accurate account.

I’d recommend this for those who enjoy biographies of interesting and unusual people, medical anomalies, local history and the attitudes of the time to those individuals who had such conditions.

If you want to learn more about the subject these websites and blogs might be of interest. Especially The Tallest Man – this link will take you to a page about ROBERT PERSHING WADLOW who was 8ft 11! The tallest verified man in medical history.