A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin & the Rise of Circumcision in Britain

Author: Robert Darby

A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin & the Rise of Circumcision in Britain. By Robert Darby. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 374 pages. www.press.uchicago.edu. No price stated on jacket but website gives price as $35.00. Review by J. Steven Svoboda.

Medical historian Robert Darby and the University of Chicago Press have released A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin & the Rise of Circumcision in Britain. A Surgical Temptation is another of several books published in recent years by intactivists or sympathizers with intactivism. (Full disclosure: While in Australia in 2003, I spent some brief yet treasured time with the author, who more recently has joined with me in coauthoring a paper currently under consideration for publication.) Given the publisher, the book naturally boasts top production values. Darby is simply superb as a medical historian, writer, and analyst of the historical forces that gave rise to medicalized circumcision in Britain (mainly England) starting in the second half of the nineteenth century. The author has a remarkable knack for unearthing and piecing together arcane data literally wrung from the dustiest, darkest corners of the world’s top medical libraries, then synthesizing cogent conclusions regarding the social and medical forces that produces the ghastly, bizarre history he recounts.

Intriguingly, Darby speculates on p. 99, “If all doctors had been as coolly inductive [as John Snow was in 1849 in identifying cholera’s transmission via a water pump], and if the genitals had been regarded as neutrally as the digestive tract, circumcision as a preventive health measure might never have been heard of.” The author outlines in detail the various forms of backward thinking in the field of sexual medicine that enabled circumcision to endure in Britain for far longer than should have happened. Indeed, many of these errors in reasoning and fact-gathering continue to be used even today, wittingly or otherwise, often in somewhat modified form, to excuse and justify neonatal penile amputation.

The author outlines in detail the deliberate role in circumcision’s development played by famous 19th century British physician William Acton. Darby also locates and deftly contextualizes a number of fascinating contemporaneous reviews of the work and writings of the initially famous, then disgraced Isaac Baker Brown. The author recounts that “a central image in Victorian pathology was the corruption of the pure by contact with impurity, and its transformation into another impure agent that could spread further corruption.”

Robert Darby possesses an encyclopedic command of relevant writings from a broad range of disciplines and integrates them seamlessly into his analysis. Many of the always fascinating details provided by the author are only indirectly related to circumcision itself. Often the author is laying a broader social context, pursuing a line of argument that is relevant to the story Darby is telling.

One of the sections of the book that some would probably consider among the most speculative is Darby’s original analysis of the works and lives of the poets Alfred Housman and W.H. Auden. Both men suffered circumcisions early in life that, based on the author’s penetrating reviews of their writings, may well have seriously scarred them and also may have had a strong bearing on their artistic careers. Darby is to be congratulated for taking risks with his book and delving into these fascinating issues from which many authors would have shied away.

In the end, Darby demonstrates, it was the disappearance of medical and popular concern (some would say obsession) with masturbation that made it possible for circumcision to decline in Britain thanks to Douglas Gairdner’s flawed if highly influential 1949 article.

Not until he reaches his concluding chapter does Darby do much connecting of dots to the modern era. In a few pages, he skillfully paints the evolution of the practice from the nineteenth century up to the present in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, as well as bringing his tale about Britain up to present times. Each of these English-speaking countries has a somewhat unique story, yet the author shows us the commonalities as well.

A Surgical Temptation is quite simply a spectacular book. It is most highly recommended to anyone reading these words and anyone else with an interest in one or more of medical history, male sexuality, and social mythmaking. Don’t miss it!