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“The One-Sex Body on Trial: the Classical and Early Modern Evidence” – a new review by Brandy Schillace

23 Apr, 14 | by gbelam

We are thrilled to be able to publish here a  wonderful review by Brandy Schillace, of Helen King’s book “The One-Sex Body on Trial: the Early and Modern Evidence.” (Surrey: Ashgate Press 2014.) Thank you so much to Brandy for her contribution to the blog – I will very much look forward to other pieces from her in the future!

– Georgia

The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Early and Modern Evidence

In so many important ways, I’ve been long anticipating this book. Where there is a lack, a need, we naturally look for satiety—and there has been a considerable gap in studies of the sexed body since the (pardon me) seminalwork of Thomas Laqueur: Making Sex. I do not mean to suggest a lacuna where none exists; certainly plenty has been written on the one-sex/two-sex body since the early 1990s. However, as Helen King herself points out, none of these works have, in a meaningful way, challenged—or even added to—Laqueur’s original analysis. If anything, they have solidified it, casting it as the background upon which all else must be built rather than as a concept or theory in its own right. Twenty years after its publication, Making Sex was still described as the standard, and as a graduate student I was given a copy as the potential foundation of my dissertation on women’s education and women’s bodies in the 18th century. There was only one problem: I found that I did not agree with aspects of Laqueur’s premise. It did not ring entirely true to what I was finding in women’s writing about their own bodies and minds in the eighteenth century.

That happens frequently, does it not? And any reasonable student seeks out the next text, and the next, to gain a broader perspective. But for me, in 2007, there were no other options. Or rather, all other options likewise returned me to the original as to the foundation, the blank background from which I was to begin. To be so statically conceived is unhealthy for any idea, no matter its worth. Closed to inquiry, its kernels harden. In The One-Sex Body on Trial, Helen King, historian and professor of classical studies at Open University, at last provides the counterpoint. Gracefully acknowledging the value of Laqueur’s work, she also offers its first real challenge. With her usual depth of perception, careful research, and immanent readability, King elaborates the other side of the one-sex/two-sex story.

One of the greatest strengths of King’s work related to her “storied” presentation. The medical humanities, though multiple and varied in definition and mission, largely seek to divine the human narrative behind medical meanings. Rather than asserting or denying the ‘one-sex’ body, King provides a reading of two key classical texts that problematize a single narrative of progression away from one model or towards the next. Close reading provides a new means of perceiving the terms in context, reminding us that in holding too close our own cultural understanding, we miss significance—or worse, misrepresent data. Using the story of Phaethousa (a woman and mother who seems to undergo masculinization) and Agnodice (a woman who wears male costume in order to become a physician), King demonstrates the variety of ways in which connotation and denotation collide. Even so common a thing as Agnodice’s calling card refuses to parse properly—to be “the WOMAN physician” can imply either that she is a woman and a physician, or a physician of women (she was, in fact, both).

In part one of King’s book, she assembles the classical evidence not of a strict adherence to the one-sex model, wherein women are men turned inside out with organs of generation that neatly correspond, but rather of a two-sex model that existed at times alongside but always in contention with the one-sex version. King does not argue for linear progression, however; rather than insisting that the one-sex to two-sex revolution happened, but happened earlier, she makes it clear that there was a range of models of the body. Vesalius, for instance, retains some of the earlier understanding of the body, such as the heart-shaped womb, but clearly departed from Galenic descriptions. The reading of Vesalius becomes clear only when the full context is considered. The question, whether Vesalius ascribed to the Galenic one-sex or Hippocratic two-sex model, is partly answered by close reading the images but also the text and the captions (frequently omitted in Laqueur’s work). Why is the abstracted womb shown without the female testicles? Because it is not an homage to Galen, of whom Vesalius claims “not even in his dreams did Galen ever see a woman’s womb” (57). Rather, it is, as King describes, the “womb and its constituent parts” –a thing unto itself and not the inverse of the male organs (59). King also describes the work of Laurens in 1593, who finds the vagina-as-penis idea frankly absurd—and Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book of 1671, where Sharp claims that despite certain similarities, male and female organs can never be considered the same. By a careful marshalling of evidence, close-reading and analysis, and copious footnotes, King makes clear the problems with Laqueur’s sweeping pronouncement that the two-sex revolution arrived in the 18th century. King’s first two chapters also serve as excellent reminders that history is complicated and close reading within a cultural context remains our safest guard against anachronism. However, the second part of King’s book departs from the usual means of explication and proof and offers an exploration of the two classic tales mentioned in the introduction. In her masterful engagement with these, King seeks to ask broader questions that remain deeply important and even foundational for the medical humanities—namely, on what authority does medical knowledge depend. Whose stories matter, and who gets to tell them?

In the second part of King’s work, we once again examine the story of Phaethousa, the woman who, after previously birthing children, stops her menses and grows a beard after (or possibly in response to) the exile of her husband. The chapters in this section highlight the frequently confusing contexts in which such stories appeared, asking us to re-evaluate their role as “true” case histories. To what extent does she represent a medical construct? Her name and place of abode would have had metaphorical relevance to readers; has she been included as proof of the Hippocratic two-sex model? She dies, after all, and does not fully change into a man. If anything, the beard is a sign of illness, possibly related to her inability to conceive children after the loss of her husband. Here, Phaethousa is at risk because she is, in fact, too womanly, too reliant upon pregnancy for health. Later contexts (and later centuries) reinterpret her story, however; she appears in Wit’s Theatre as a fully functioning male, having undergone the inversion successfully. Surely this usage supports the one-sex model wherein male and female organs are interchangeable with the proper heat. And yet, she also appears in lists of hermaphrodites in the early modern period. What do such changes in context and, indeed, meaning represent? The story represents a “blank canvas,” a place where divergent and overlapping understandings of sex and gender might be enacted and analyzed, and reading this broader context allows us to go beyond Laqueur’s dichotomy and to recognize the variety of markers that made sex apparent, such as beard, menses, and generative ability. Part three of King’s book, which provides a similarly close reading of the Agnodice story, likewise challenges Laqueur’s straightforward picture of the classical and early modern world. “True sex” means different things in different versions (and for different audiences) of these narratives.  Agnodice’s story, particularly, does not fit into a single genre; the “voice” shifts and the text is offered up both by Agnodice’s supporters and her enemies.

King’s chapters on Agnodice, which close the book, render explicit the role of interpretive context: Agnodice as assertive and active heroine; Agnodice as shameful woman from which no woman should learn, Agnodice as the pretender—not to be trusted, Agnodice as agent of change. To what extent does the story represent reality? To what extent myth and fiction? How are we to read her role or even her name (chaste before justice), considering she saves herself from accusations of philandering with her woman patients by exposing her genitals in the courtroom? Even more complex, if possible, than the tale of Phaethousa, the story of Agnodice toys with the Galenic one-sex model while depending upon the two-sex model for its happy conclusion. More importantly, as King remarks, “the reason why the story is being told affects how it is constructed” (206). In her final chapter, wherein she ties the two tales together, King returns again to the markers of sex. What is it that makes a woman a woman? Or a man? Even Galen’s one-sex model is not as simple as it first appears. Rather, King’s extensive research reveals a much more fluid history, where different models of the body existed simultaneously and possibly on a spectrum wider still.

King’s work does, at many points, contradict Laqueur, but at no time does it set itself up as antagonistic to it. In many respects she agrees, particularly with Laqueur’s point that what was “seen” depended much more on expectation than anatomy. However, where Making Sex relied heavily on a smaller selection of sources, and these occasionally out of context, King widens the scope of source material for a richer and more meaningful engagement. Applying specific labels—either one-sex or two-sex—“obscures the complexity of the different interest groups, readers and tellers,” whereas our consideration of cultural and chronological specificity allows us to engage not just with meaning, but with meaning-making.

Guest Blog Post by Poet and Writer, Clare Best, Part 2: On Scars and Memories

21 Apr, 14 | by Deborah Bowman

Guest blog for BMJ Medical Humanities by Clare Best


Recently I’ve been thinking about cutting/editing and scars/memories. In two linked pieces for the BMJ Medical Humanities blog, I take a look at my own relationship first with knives and cutting and then with scars and memories.


Part two: Scars and memories


If I, as a former artist-craftswoman and as a writer and editor, am some kind of surgeon, then surgeons are also editors and writers. They arrange and rearrange our anatomies, cutting away what is not healthy, what is no longer required, repairing what is not working as it should. They invent and create new mechanisms and implant them into our bodies. The aim of most surgery, it seems to me, is to alleviate suffering and allow bodies and human beings to function as fully as possible. Surgeons facilitate – as far as they are able to – our wholeness. Our bodies, subjected to their hand work, become altered and edited versions of our earlier, or first draft, selves. Surgery is one agency in the mutability of human experience.


My own body has been revised and edited in many ways, as of course have all human bodies – by growth, by accidents, by disease, by ageing and even by self-harm, as well as by surgery of various kinds. In my case, the most dramatic revision and editing happened in 2006 when I underwent elective double mastectomy as a way of reducing my risk of contracting a hereditary breast cancer in my mother’s family.


I have written elsewhere about the decision-making journey leading to my surgery, as well as about the creative processes that sustained me before, during and after surgery – the creative processes which later developed into the project Self-portrait without Breasts ( Here, I want to think about scarring as evidence and reminder of trauma and loss. And I want to raise questions about the ways in which scars are read and interpreted – both as signs of surgery and as memorial sites.


The surgeon who operated on my mother was a kind and gentle man who nonetheless believed in radical mastectomy, which involved removing not only all the breast tissue but also much of the underlying muscle of the chest wall, and all the lymph nodes. Considering that the particularly aggressive nature of inherited breast cancer was not recognised in the 1970s (when my mother’s cancer was first found) she was lucky to encounter a surgeon who believed in this approach. Her radical mastectomies five years apart, following multiple primary tumours in both breasts, almost certainly gave her the additional twenty-five years of life she enjoyed until she died in her early seventies. But the resulting scars, both visible and invisible, were terrible to her. She never wanted them to be known about, let alone witnessed. She and I were very close, and yet throughout the many times I nursed her, and right up to the end of her life, she made enormous efforts to keep her morbidly scarred torso and upper arms from my sight. I saw the scars only twice, on both occasions by accident.


My mother was not unique in her shame and suffering. Although we now find it hard to imagine a world in which the words ‘breast cancer’ were unspeakable, that was the world my mother, and countless other women, inhabited. With the prominent outer features of their gender and sexuality invaded by disease and/or surgically removed, women with breast cancer struggled to maintain a sense of identity. But by the same token there was no language in which to talk about their loss and fear, and the scars had to remain unseen, both literally and metaphorically.


So taboo was this disease, in the world and in our family, that when my first cousin was diagnosed with aggressive ductal carcinoma in the mid-1990s, she had no knowledge of her aunt’s (my mother’s) experiences, even though her own mother (my mother’ sister) had also developed breast cancer. It was only when my cousin and I began to correspond about our mothers’ breast cancers that the extent of the deeper family scarring became visible and tangible. We began to read the scars and interpret our own situation, the risks we faced. We could also finally perceive the scars in our mothers’ generation as the memorial sites they were – places where loss and pain should have been respected, remembered and properly grieved, instead of turned away from and covered up.


The good news is that the current climate around surgical scarring is much more open. This has to be a very positive change for individuals and for society. Some of the mainstream breast cancer charities such as Breast Cancer Care are now running campaigns that address body image issues with photographs of women at ease with, and baring, their scars. The recent Under the Red Dress project has drawn a groundswell of support for making scars visible, even legible, and the project clearly links that legibility with raising awareness of breast cancer. My own work explores and extends the ways we tell the stories of our bodies; in speaking out through poetry and photographs, I speak for other women in my family and beyond.


But there is more work to be done. If scars are both evidence of cutting/editing and sites of memory, we are presently at risk of overemphasising the evidence whilst sometimes failing to properly acknowledge the memories. A recent statement from Judy Kneece, sent around social networking sites by the (American) National Breast Cancer Foundation, asserts that ‘Breast cancer has invaded my body, but it need not invade my spirit. There may be scars on my chest, but there need not be scars in my heart.’ Apart from the use of the stale military terminology by which all experiences of cancer seem to be set up as battles to be lost or won, the core of the message is, I think, distressing in its denial of the need to admit inner wounding and thereby begin to integrate trauma and loss. Of course the scars are in the heart as well as on the chest – how could it be otherwise, and what is wrong with that?


We should seek to accept the hand work – the cutting – where it is necessary, and treat with tenderness and care the consequent scars and the memories they represent. Surely this honouring of the memory as well as the scar, the material edited as well as the knife and the cut, makes the move towards true healing both more imperative and more likely.


Clare Best is a poet and writer with particular interests in writing body and landscape. Her poems are widely published in magazines including The Rialto, The London Magazine, Magma, Resurgence, Agenda and The Warwick Review. A chapbook, Treasure Ground (HappenStance 2009), resulted from her residency at Woodlands Organic Farm on the Lincolnshire fens. Breastless – poems from the sequence Self-portrait without Breasts with photographs by Laura Stevens – came out with Pighog in 2011, and Clare’s first full collection, Excisions (Waterloo Press 2011) was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Award. She teaches Creative Writing for Brighton University and the Open University, and lives in Lewes, Sussex.

Guest Post by Poet and Writer, Clare Best: On Cutting and Editing and Scars and Memories

13 Apr, 14 | by Deborah Bowman



Recently I’ve been thinking about cutting/editing and scars/memories. In two linked pieces for the BMJ Medical Humanities blog, I take a look at my own relationship first with knives and cutting and then with scars and memories.


Part one: Knives and cutting


Among my clearest memories of childhood are strong sensory images of my father sharpening the carving knife each Sunday morning. He had an old bone-handled carver with a steel blade worn concave by years of service and he would stand at the kitchen worktop with the carving knife in his right hand and a cylindrical steel in his left, dancing the two metals together in front of him. The scraping and clashing were scary and magical – scary because of the glint of bright metal as the cutting edge became sharper, magical because this ritual heralded the final preparations for Sunday roast lunch. My father was always totally absorbed in the activity, pausing occasionally only to test the blade on the thumb of his left hand. In fifteen or more years, I just once saw him draw his own blood. He was an expert, and maintaining the tool of his Sunday task was a source of pleasure and satisfaction.


My father was a papermaker by trade and the plentiful currency of paper in our home had imbued me with a love of the material as I grew up. His passion for sharp knives must also have lodged in me. I put the two together, and for eight years of my life I sharpened blades and used them, in my first career as a fine bookbinder. I had many blades to look after, each one essential to my craft.


The guillotine blade was curved and heavy and the length of a sabre. It had to be removed from the work bench every few months to be sharpened professionally. I can still hear the decisive clunk as the newly honed and reinstalled blade sliced down through mill board.

Then there was my binder’s knife, a workaday tool of raw steel with a wooden handle darkened by my sweat. I used it for cutting against a rule. Over time the blade was thinned by sharpening until it became my ideal flexible knife. Just standing and thinking with it in my hand was almost enough to effect a precise cut. It was the first blade I worked each morning on the oiled carborundum stone. I had Stanley knives too of course, and penknives, and scalpels.

When I began work on a leather binding, it was the blade of my spoke-shave that needed attention. The spoke-shave is used for removing areas of the underside of the goat or calf skin, thinning the soft tissue before it is wetted and pasted for moulding around the prepared book block. Once I had chosen the right skin, I would dismantle the spoke-shave and take out the piece of flat steel with its cutting edge angled at 45 degrees. Back at the carborundum stone, I pushed the blade to and fro. Then I reassembled the tool, clamped the leather to a paring stone, and shaved the underside of the skin away from my body, always out and away. The flesh came off in soft rolls of colour until the leather had well-defined thin areas where it would be required to mould across joints, where corners could be mitred and edges turned.

There was another knife – a bone-handled kitchen knife with a tame blade and rounded tip. I used it for cutting gold leaf on a suede cushion. The gold-knife had at all times to be completely free of grease, as did the cushion, or the gold leaf would adhere where it should not. I used to sharpen the fine edge of my gold-knife with glass-paper. I enjoyed laying out the gold from its square tissue-leaved book by blowing one edge of a square of gold across the blade, lifting the leaf slowly on the knife and placing it on the gold cushion. With my mouth positioned over the centre of the leaf, I whistled silently to flatten it across the suede.

When I was ready to lay the gold on the leather binding, I would pick up small sections of gold leaf using greased cotton wool and dab the gold down onto the leather. Now to strike with the hot brass tools! If the flour paste and egg glair in the blind tooled indents had just the correct tackiness, the gold would fuse with the grain of the leather while the smooth surface of the brass tool simultaneously polished it. All this happened, if it was going to, in a second.

The daily ritual of sharpening also honed my senses and my purpose: the work was to measure and cut, fit and cut and refit, mould and fit. I was trained with the motto: ‘Measure twice, cut once’. The blades were extensions of my hands and mind. I cut into animal skins and dressed books in them. I cut gold and tooled it onto the leather. I fitted things to other things, making sense of disparate parts. By the end, if the knives had been sharp and my work skilled, most of the preparation was invisible – pages turned freely, boards opened well along joints, the book had the correct gravity. The mitred corners were so well-judged that they were flat under the thumb. All the cutting and making actions came together in one object. The binding was sensuous in the hands, pleasing to the eye.


It was years after I sharpened my knives for the last time and ceased working as a bookbinder that I fully realized how writing and editing are also ways of shaping and cutting, re-forming reality. It is all craft. And – here I come to the links with medicine – it is a surgeon’s work. The very word surgery comes originally from the Greek kheirourgia (kheir meaning hand + ergon meaning work) – the etymology from the Greek having more to do with art, handwork and finesse than with cutting. So I was and remain a kind of surgeon – I have worked with the anatomy of books and with animal skins, and I now work with texts of many kinds.


All writers take things in hand. We work, alter, reshape and adapt them. We cut away diseased, superfluous or useless parts, connect ideas to one another. And as we do our hand work we attempt to make whole, to heal, the body of text on which we are focused.

Call for Papers: Fashionable Diseases: Medicine, Literature and Culture, ca. 1660-1832

28 Jan, 14 | by Deborah Bowman

An International Interdisciplinary Conference

Newcastle and Northumbria Universities

3rd – 5th July 2014


Keynote speakers include:
Professor Helen Deutsch, ‘Diseases of Writing’

University of California, Los Angeles

Author of Resemblance and Disgrace: Alexander Pope and the Deformation of Culture


Dr David Shuttleton, ‘The Fashioning of Fashionable Diseases in the Eighteenth Century’

University of Glasgow

Author of Smallpox and the Literary Imagination


Between 1660 and 1832 books such as Cheyne’s English Malady and Adair’s Essays on Fashionable Diseases created a substantial debate on the relationship between fashion and sickness, linking melancholy, the vapours, nervousness, gout, consumption and many other conditions with the elite and superior sensibility. This conference aims to include voices from both within the social and medical elite and beyond, and to look at diseases that have not previously been examined in this context and at what can be learned from ‘unfashionable’ illnesses. It also aims to consider not only diseases associated with social prestige, but also with the medical critique of fashionable luxurious lifestyles, and the debate on ‘imaginary’ diseases. The role of culture in creating, framing and spreading conceptions of fashionable disease will also be considered.


Proposals for papers and three-person panels are welcome on topics related to fashionable diseases, including:

  • Patient experience
  • Consumer society and the ‘medical marketplace’
  • Culture (literature, music, etc) and fashionable disease
  • Geographical meanings – travel literature and spa culture
  • Morality, politics and medicine in critiques of fashionable lifestyles
  • Satire, stigma, fashion
  • ‘Imaginary’ diseases
  • Class, gender, race, religion, etc
  • Unfashionable diseases


We are also keen to receive proposals offering interdisciplinary and internationally comparative perspectives, or relating eighteenth-century to contemporary fashionable diseases.

Please submit abstracts (max. 250 words) and a brief biography (max 100 words) to by 28 February 2014


Ayesha Ahmad: “Stories are all we have”- reflecting on ‘An Imperfect Offering’ by James Orbinski

21 Nov, 11 | by Ayesha Ahmad

In ‘An Imperfect Offering’, a memoir written by James Orbinski on his travelling tales as a doctor working and bearing witness in some of the world’s most death-ridden and hostile regions, he writes of a man he met in Afghanistan who once said to him:

No scars, no story, no life. Sometimes, the best story is the space between the words – a space that is a window onto a different way of seeing. And when there are no easy answers, stories are all we have”.


James Poskett: Stories of psychology

12 Oct, 11 | by James Poskett

Who are the big names in the history of child psychology? Anna Freud? Melanie Klein? John Bowlby? Certainly. But, according to Professor Sally Shuttleworth, in order to locate the origins of child psychology, we have to look to nineteenth-century literature, to authors such as George Eliot and Charles Dickens.

This is just one of the historical titbits to come out of the recent Stories of Psychology conference, ran by the British Psychological Society at the Wellcome Trust. In her paper, entitled Studying the Child in the Nineteenth Century, Shuttleworth argued that the emerging genre of the nineteenth-century novel was the first to take the psychological world of the child seriously. Whilst previous works may have dealt with comings of age, novels such as Dickens’s Dombey and Son began to investigate the psychological world of the child in its own right, particularly within the context of education. (In the novel, Dombey’s son has difficultly socialising and is sent to a number of medical and educational establishments in order to rectify this shortcoming.)

Shuttleworth believes that such literary explorations were picked up by the psychologists and educationalists of the time, citing as evidence the way in which psychological theories were put to use in debates over compulsory education.


James Poskett: A poetic triumph over the X-ray machine

8 Jul, 11 | by James Poskett

In what begins as an ‘unassuming extension of the ears’ and later develops into a ‘triumph over the x-ray machine’, Anne Merritt’s recently published poem, Stethoscope, neatly captures the development of a unique medical relationship that has little to do with patients: one between a doctor and the instruments with which she plies her trade.


The Drama of Medicine-All the Ward’s a Stage: 8th Annual AMH Conference, 11-13 July 2011, University of Leicester,UK

13 Jun, 11 | by Deborah Kirklin

Plans for the 8th annual conference of the Association for Medical Humanities are now well underway, with an exciting line up of papers, workshops and plenary speakers. Celebrated poet and doctor Dannie Abse will be running a session entitled Poet in a White Coat; Jed Mercurio, author of Bodies and creator of the TV series Cardiac Arrest, will speak on the Doctor as Antihero;  Professor Laurie Maguire, from Magdalen College Oxford, will explore Shakespeare’s guide to health and illness; and Matthew Alexander from North Carolina, a leading authority on the use of cinema in medical education, will begin the conference with a workshop and plenary address on this subject. more…

2011 International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine

17 May, 11 | by Ayesha Ahmad

I recently attended the 2nd Annual Hippocrates Poetry and Medicine Symposium, which was held at Warwick Medical School and hosted by Professor Donald Singer and Associate Professor Michael Hulse. During the day, a group of researchers and clinicians from a variety of backgrounds gathered to explore the role of poetry in the discourse of medicine, including renowned poets, Marilyn Hacker and Gwyneth Lewis.


Off Sick; Narratives of Illness Past and Present

31 Mar, 11 | by Deborah Kirklin

Scholars from the universities of Glamorgan and Cardiff are currently breaking new ground in the Medical Humanities with the Off Sick project, writes Dr Richard Marsden. This research initiative, led by Dr Martin Willis and Dr Keir Waddington, puts a new twist on the well-known concept of the ‘illness narrative’. It focuses not on the people who actually suffer from illness, but instead on those who support and care for them. In this vein the project team is currently gathering stories from carers across the South Wales area. more…

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