Elizabeth Reis, Associate Professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program and the History Department at the University of Oregon, shines a bright light into a dark alley in the history of American medicine. The question for medical professionals: how to treat intersex patients, or, in other words, hermaphrodites—patients with ambiguous anatomical and physiological sexual identities. Reis’s medical history starts at the beginning of American medicine where hermaphrodites were looked upon as monstrosities of nature, perhaps even a judgment of God for some kind of sexual perversion. Later physicians debated the existence of hermaphrodites, most physicians insistent that all humans were either male or female. These views would eventually inform and encourage the practice of surgical and/or hormonal intervention to force an intersex patient to be either male or female; the determination of the gender often a physician’s choice at the expense of the patient, who was either too young to know or needed to be saved from the immorality of practicing homosexuality. Reis’s history captures the provisional nature of medicine, the ambiguity of gender, and raises ethical questions about how medicine treats those who don’t fit into its conditioned and historically bound definition of normal. Recommended for those interested in the history of medicine, sexuality, and gender.
Feb 26, 2010