The Myth of the “One-Sex” Body

Katherine Park, Harvard University/ Villa I Tatti

Monday 22 November 2021, 15:00 (CET), Sala degli Stemmi, Villa Salviati, hybrid mode.

Jointly organised by the History of Science and Medicine Working Group and the Queer and Feminist Studies Working Group.






Galen (129–ca. 216).
De usu partium, corporis humani libri xvii.
Basle: per A. Cratandrum and J. Bebelium, 1533.


In Making Sex (1990), Thomas Laqueur argued for a dramatic shift in Western medical understandings of sex difference circa 1800, falsely claiming that prior to this period, women were generally understood as imperfect men; their genitals trapped inside their bodies by their lack of complexional heat. In fact, the period before 1800 saw the co-existence of multiple traditions relating to genital anatomy and function, in which Arabic medical compendia played an important role, although largely ignored by Laqueur. Only one of these, which was written by the eleventh-century medical author Ibn Sīnā, transmitted without significant modification Galen’s speculative account of the genital homologies in On the Use of Parts. This was not translated into Latin until the early fourteenth century and played no part in the development of Latin European understandings of sex difference before then. Even after that point, interest in the inside/out model of the genitals was only specific to the late medieval surgical tradition. Elaborated by two sixteenth-century surgeons, Jacopo Berengario of Carpi (in Latin) and Ambroise Paré (in French), it was moribund in learned European medicine by 1600, although it continued to flourish for several decades in vernacular medical and non-medical literature as it invited the explicit discussion of sexual practices. In short, unable to read Latin, Laqueur was forced to cobble together his account using texts available in English translation, specifically Galen’s On the Use of Parts, Berengario’s Brief Introduction, and Paré’s On Monsters and Prodigies. Ignoring the 1300-year gap between Galen and the two early modern surgical writers, he assumed strict continuity between them. In this way, he recapitulated the teleological master narrative underpinning the early historiography of Western science and medicine, which was heavily invested in ignoring the Arabic medical tradition, to instead establish a tight continuity between ancient Greek medical ideas and early modern and modern European medicine. 

About the speaker : Katharine Park is Samuel Zemurray, Jr. and Doris Zemurray Stone Racliffe Professor Emerita of the History of Science at Harvard University, where she also chaired the program in Women’s Studies, 1998-2003. Her research focuses on the history of science and medicine in medieval and early modern Europe and the Mediterranean world. Her books include Doctors and Medicine in Early Renaissance Italy (1986), Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (1998, coauthored with Lorraine Daston), Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection (2006); and The Cambridge History of Science, vol. 3: Early Modern Science (2006, coedited with Lorraine Daston). She is a recipient of the Pfizer and Rossiter Prizes and the Sarton Medal of the History of Science Society, the Welch Medal of the American Association of the History of Medicine, and the Dan David Prize 2021.



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