SYDNEY MORNING HERALD, Sydney, NSW, 10 January 2004.

The Good Weekend, The Sydney Morning Herald Magazine, page seven

May the foreskin be with you

Dr Karl S. Kruszelnicki
tackles life's myths, curiosities and absurdities

Circumcision goes back a long way - Egyptian male mummies dating back to 2300BC have been circumcised. Its popularity now varies from country to country - in Australia, between 10 and 20 per cent of newborn males are circumcised each year, compared with more than 60 per cent in the US and less than 2 per cent in Scandinavia. It has long been practised for religious reasons and as a rite of passage in various societies. But there's a (supposed) health issue, too: many parents have circumcised their sons in the belief that it is more hygienic. It's not.

As Dr Robert Darby wrote in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2003, "in the days before aseptic surgery, any cutting of the flesh was the least hygienic thing anybody could do, carrying a high risk of bleeding, infection and death."

So how did this myth arise? Wars are very unsanitary, and uncircumcised soldiers were thought to be at risk of serious infection around the foreskin if they couldn't wash frequently. This claim was made in the First and Second World Wars, as well as in both Gulf Wars. In desert wars, it became known as the "sand myth." Dr Ken McGrath, a senior lecturer in pathology at the Auckland University of Technology, could find no evidence to support it. And Sir Duncan Stout, who wrote a chapter on military medicine in the tome History of the Second World War, did not make any reference to circumcision being used to cure foreskin problems. In fact, his official records claimed the opposite - there was a great reluctance to perform circumcisions because the sand in the Sahara Desert was as fine as flour, and was almost impossible to keep out of clothing and away from the skin.

But why remove the foreskin? Dr Paul Fleiss, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California Centre, says the foreskin is "a uniquely specialised, sensitive, functional organ of touch." It make proteins that fight bacteria and viruses, and produces a moisturiser that keeps the surface of the glans sensitive, soft and moist. Indeed, it has more specialised nerve endings than any other part of the penis, and is as sensitive as the lips of the mouth.

When did circumcision become linked to hygiene? Probably during the Victorian era, when it was promoted as a way to desensitise the penis to thwart masturbation, which was thought to cause headaches, paralysis, bed-wetting, insanity, epilepsy, tuberculosis, short-sightedness, criminality and heart disease. The hygiene that circumcision was meant to encourage was, it seems, not physical but moral.

As far as personal hygiene is concerned, removing the foreskin to have a cleaner penis makes as much sense as removing the eyelid to have a cleaner eyeball.

(File revised 12 January 2004)