Why do Americans (United States only), Iraqis, some Nigerians, Sudanese, Pakistanis, South Koreans and some Australian Aboriginals circumcise boys?
Why don't the British, New Zealanders, Japanese, the Germans, the Swedes, the French, the Italians, the South Americans and most other people?
Why are Canadians abandoning it?
When and why did "health" circumcision of boys start, and where? Why and where did it stop?
What is the origin of ritual circumcision among certain tribal peoples in the ancient Middle East and Africa?
What is the connection between male circumcision and female genital cutting (sometimes called female genital mutilation)?
When and why did circumcision of boys start in Australia? When did it fall out of fashion? Why has it nearly disappeared?
If you're curious about these and similar questions, this is the site for you.
Aims and scope
This is a site devoted to the history of circumcision. It will consist of research articles and primary documents relating to both male and female circumcision, in both medical and ritual/religious contexts; but its strongest focus will be on medically rationalised or "routine" circumcision in English speaking countries. Its aim is to provide accurate and reliable information in this controversial area, and to combat myths and misconceptions.
The site has been established by Dr Robert Darby, a medical historian living in Canberra, Australia.
On this site
To navigate this site, use the links at the top of the column at the left to take you to the introductory page for each major category; there you will find an outline of the subject and suggestions for further reading and links to the material held on this site. The documents and commentary available on this site are listed at the bottom of each of the introductory pages, under the heading "Sources on this site".
Below is a brief overture to give you a taste of what you will find. This site is permanently under construction, and new material is added regularly. Suggestions are welcome.
To print, bring up a print-formatted page by clicking on the print icon in the top right corner.
An important new study in a major European journal takes a historical tour of the various amazing claims that have been made for the harmfulness of a natural bodily secretion called smegma, and provides an answer to one of the most puzzling problems of zoology: why most mice prefer not to live inside the foreskins of horses. Full text available at CIRP. A French urologist gives a fresh perspective on the history of circumcision, and makes interesting comments on United States practice as a cultural norm rather than a medico-scientific ("health") precaution. (Translation exclusive to this site.)
In South Africa, public health experts at the University of Capetown review the history of circumcision and throw serious doubt on whether yet more of the practice (in a country where nearly half the men are already circumcised) can do much to reduce the spread of AIDS; and ask whether it would be an ethically and culturally acceptable approach even if it could. A pediatrician and human rights expert reply to extremists who assert that the African AIDS crisis demands that circumcision be made compulsory.
Here you will find odd news items relating to circumcision, not merely its past history, but current events as well, including significant new publications and historical oddities, such as the recent resurfacing of an old story (discredited long ago) that Louis XVI of France had to get circumcised in order to fulfil his duties as a royal husband. (As Talleyrand said of the Bourbons, in words with remarkable application to circumcision crusaders, "They have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing".) In a definitive survey of the evidence, a Greek urologist shows that Louis could not possibly have been circumcised. In Germany, a court finds that circumcision of a minor without consent constitutes unlawful injury. With audiences flocking to The Golden Compass, the movie based on Philip Pullman's brilliant fantasy story, Northern Lights, many are debating the question as to whether there are any parallels between intercision and circumcision.
The October 2008 issue of the South African Medical Journal contains three articles, including an editorial, that condemn the WHO-UNAIDS push for mass circumcision in Africa as a tactic against AIDS. According to SAMJ, the project is ineffective and unethical. A new book by David Gisselquist argues that because a high proportion of HIV transmission in Africa is the result of non-sterile medical procedures, introducing more surgery in the form of circumcision is not likely to help much. In a long and telling letter to this site, a Russian immigrant to the United States explains why getting circumcised in his 20s was the worst mistake of his life.
A submission to the Australian Human Rights Consultation argues that bodily integrity is a human right and that, since boys are human, they deserve as much protection against genital surgeries as girls. The Sydney Morning Herald fails a basic clear thinking test in its attempt to ridicule the paper on the legal status of circumcision recently published by the Tasmanian Law Reform Commission. The editorial, my comment and the reply by Tasmania's Commissioner for Children are reproduced on the NEWS page.
Medically rationalised circumcision really got started in the 1840s, when British doctors began to think seriously about surgical cures for both physical and mental illnesses, as well as for various socially disapproved behaviours. One of the fathers of routine circumcision, and the inventor of the idea that it would confer immunity to syphilis, was a puritannical Quaker called (Sir) Jonathan Hutchinson. Unlike Isaac Baker Brown, he was not so keen on clitoridectomy, which he considered unethical even if effective. The complete text of a long correspondence on the "pros and cons" of circumcision in the British Medical Journal in 1935 shows how little the debate has advanced in the past 70 years. In a letter to William Acton, the prominent Victorian physiologist, Sir James Paget, foreshadows modern research on the reflex action of the foreskin and the importance of the ridged band. Although forgotten today, George Drysdale was an early prophet of the sexual revolution, championed safe sex (including condoms) and opposed fanatics such as Jonathan Hutchinson who sought to exploit the syphilis scare as an excuse to enforce mass circumcision.
United States of America
Nowhere did preventive circumcision become more popular or more rigorously enforced than in the United States. A short but fully documented history of its institutionalisation reports an amazing tale of misdirected zeal. This statistical essay, A century of circumcision, offers some reflections on why a nation which prides itself on its individualism and its love of freedom should be so keen on this mark of uniformity and servitude. There are also some revealing articles from the 1890s explaining why women often need circumcison as much as men, the evil effects of infantile and childhood phimosis, and an account of the astounding history of a surgical torture device called the Gomco clamp. Invented in the 1930s, this was a crucial weapon in the struggle of obstetricians and gynecologists to gain control of childbirth, and seize responsibility for circumcising boys from the surgeons. There is also an account of the campaign in the 1880s to compulsorily circumcise Black Americans so as to "protect them" from syphilis; and of the attempt in the 1890s to pass a law requiring all Negro boys to be circumcised so as to reduce their sex drive and protect white women from rape. Another page outlines the challenges to routine circumcision mounted by sceptical critics, beginning in the early 1940s, and continuing to the present. Leonard Glick explains why he wrote Marked in your flesh, and his book is reviewed by a puzzled critic. A stormy blast against "the opponents of circumcision" from Dr Remondino shows that anti-foreskin activists in 1902 were just as dogmatic and intolerant of criticism as their counterparts today.
Circumcision began as a social ritual among a small number of tribal peoples in north-east Africa and the Arabian peninsular, and it later became the mark of initiation for two major religions. This page offers some leads on the early history of pre-medical circumcision, and considers the claims of some circumcision enthusiasts that these pre-literate societies were somehow motivated by hygienic or even scientific insights. A leading pediatrician demolishes the arguments in favour of this notion put forward by G.N. Weiss. An anthropologist reviews Marked in Your Flesh, Leonard Glick's study
of Jewish circumcision, from ancient Judea to modern America. There is also a scathing recent editorial from the South African Medical Journal describing the deaths and injury caused by tribal circumcision schools, and calling for action to "halt the carnage". Meanwhile, as HIV-AIDS spreads among circumcised populations, thoughtful people look for real answers.
Most societies which traditionally practise male circumcision also practise various forms of female circumcision, and usually for similar reasons. This point is often overlooked by critics of female genital mutilation, but even more forgotten is the extraordinary history of medically rationalised female circumcision in Anglo-American societies, which justified it in much the same way as the male version. In this section are collected articles on the history of both forms of circumcision, including Dr Robert Morris's prediction that evolution was trying to abolish the clitoris, and a recent critique of the double standard in United Nations policy on harmful traditional practices. J. Steven Svoboda reviews two recent books on female genital cutting.
For the first time, a detailed and thoroughly documented account of the rise of preventive circumcision (for both males and females) in Victorian Britain. The amazing story of how normal parts of the human body were blamed for many of the health problems of the period.
A surgical temptation, by Australian medical and cultural historian Robert Darby, provides the missing link in nineteenth century medical history, sexuality, and gender studies. Essential background to contemporary debates about the value and ethics of prophylactic amputation.
What the critics say:
"an extremely worthwhile topic that adds considerably to our knowledge of sexual attitudes and medical practices". - Dr Lesley Hall, Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine
"exceptional detail and sound judgment. ... A very interesting study." - Professor Peter Stearns, George Mason University
When Round the Red Lamp
appeared in 1895, reviewers were appalled. Expecting tales in the style
of Conan Doyle's popular Sherlock Holmes stories, readers were shocked
to find instead harrowing medical stories involving childbirth,
venereal disease and botched amputations.
Before he became
famous as a prolific writer, Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) had trained
as a medical doctor, practised as a GP in Portsmouth, tried his luck as
an eye specialist in London and written a number of non-fiction
articles and other contributions on medical subjects. For this edition,
Robert Darby has collected not only the original stories compiled for Round the Red Lamp and
three other stories with a medical theme, but also the full range of
Conan Doyle's medical non-fiction. As he argues in a comprehensive
introduction, these writings provide a rare glimpse into the world of a
provincial GP at the moment when old style medicine was dying and the
modern medical profession was emerging.
The stories are further illuminated by detailed explanatory notes and references.