History of Circumcision

This index page links to material relating to the origin and history of male circumcision. Material is indexed in chronological order of publication.


The practice of male genital mutilation is far older than recorded history. Certainly, it is far older than the Biblical account of Abraham (Genesis 17). It seems to have originated in eastern Africa long before this ime.8,21

Many theories have been advanced to explain the origin of genital mutilation. One theory postulates that circumcision began as a way of purifying individuals and society by reducing sexuality and sexual pleasure. Human sexuality was seen as dirty or impure in some societies; hence cutting off the pleasure-producing parts was the obvious way to purify someone.

It is now known that the male foreskin, or prepuce, is the principal location of erogenous sensation in the human male (see Anatomy.) Removal of the prepuce substantially reduces erogenous sensation.14,19 Therefore (in the appropriate cultural context), circumcision is revealed as a sacrifice of sinful human enjoyment (in this earthly life), for the sake of holiness in the afterlife.14

The Jews adopted circumcision as a religious ritual10,13,16,20 and preserved this prehistoric practice into modern times.11,20 The circumcision of Abraham removed only the very tip that extended beyond the glans penis.11,20,26,31 Moses and his sons were not circumcised. (Exodus 4:25) Although Moses apparently prohibited circumcision during the 40 years in the wilderness,20,21,24 (Joshua 5:5) Joshua reinstituted circumcision at Gilgal after the death of Moses.20,21,24 (Joshua 5:2-10) It is interesting to note that after the Israelites were circumcised, they immediately became soldiers in Joshua's army for the conquest of Palestine. (Joshua 6:1-3)

In contrast to the Jews, the Greeks and the Romans placed a high value on the prepuce.3,34 The Romans passed several laws to protect the prepuce by prohibiting circumcision.3,34 The laws were applied to everyone and were not directed against the Jews. 3

Much later in the Hellenic period, about 140 C.E., the Jewish authorities modified circumcision procedure to make it impossible for a Jew to appear to be an uncircumcised Greek.10,11,20,30 A radical new procedure called peri'ah was introduced by the priests and rabbis. In this procedure the foreskin was stripped away from the glans, with which it is fused in the infant (See Normal.) In a painful procedure known today as a synechotomy, more foreskin was removed than before and the injury was correspondingly greater. With the introduction of peri'ah, the glans could not easily be recovered, and so no Jewish male would easily be able to appear as an uncircumcised Greek.10,11,20,31 This radical modified procedure eventually was adopted by the medical profession and is the circumcision operation used today.

Although Judaism mandated circumcision, not all Jews wanted to be circumcised. Several methods of foreskin restoration were devised and practiced.10,11,25

It may have been at this time that the Pondus Judaeus (also known as Judaeum Pondum), a bronze weight worn by Jews on the residual foreskin to stretch it back into a foreskin,10,11,25 gained popularity amongst Jewish males. This lessened the ugly appearance of the bare exposed circumcised penis.10,25 This restorative procedure was known by the Greek word epispasm,10 or rolling inward.

The third stage of ritual circumcision, the Messisa or Metzitzah, was not introduced until the Talmudic period (500-625 C.E).11,20,25 In Metzitzah, the mohel (ritual circumciser) sucks blood from the penis of the circumcised infant with his mouth.34 This procedure has been responsible for the death of many Jewish babies due to infection.16 In modern times, a glass tube is sometimes used instead.19

The Reform movement within Judaism considered circumcision to be a cruel practice.20 The Reform movement at Frankfort declared in 1843 that circumcision was not necessary.20,24 Theodor Hertzl, the founder of Zionism, refused to have his son circumcised.

The Christians took a strong stand against circumcision in the first century. Christians rejected circumcision at the Council at Jerusalem.16 (Acts 15) St. Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, taught parents that they should not circumcise their children. (Acts 21:25) In a reference to the old practices of genital mutilation, St. Paul warned Titus to beware of the circumcision group. (Titus 1:10-16)

The modern use of Hebrew circumcision as a medicalized practice dates from about 1865 in England and about 1870 in the US.12 The procedure accepted for medical use essentially was the Jewish peri'ah. Moscucci reports that circumcision was imposed in an attempt to prevent masturbation.18 Gollaher further describes the history of medicalized circumcision.13 No scientific studies were carried out to determine the efficacy and safety of circumcision prior to its introduction into medical practice,13 nor were any studies conducted to determine the social effects of imposing genital alteration surgery on a large portion of the population.

South Koreans started to circumcise children during the American trusteeship following World War II. The American cultural practice of circumcision became nearly universal in South Korea after the Korean War of 1950-52.27

In 1949, Gairdner wrote that circumcision was medically unnecessary and non-beneficial, and contraindicated because of complications and deaths.5 The British National Health Service (NHS) deleted non-therapeutic neonatal circumcision from the schedule of covered procedures in 1950. The incidence of neonatal circumcision in the United Kingdom declined sharply to a very low level after publication of this article after the procedure was delisted by the NHS.

America waited another 20 years before addressing the problem of non-therapeutic circumcision. The Journal of the American Medical Association published an influential landmark article by Dr. E. Noel Preston, Captain, MC, USAF.6 Dr. Preston established that there is no therapeutic or prophylactic benefit to circumcision. He also cited undesirable psychologic, sexual, and medico-legal difficulties.6

Influenced by Preston, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in 1971, issued a statement that [t]here are no valid medical indications for circumcision in the neonatal period.12 This marked the beginning of the end of America's infatuation with male circumcision. The incidence of male neonatal circumcision in the U.S. peaked in 1971 and began a slow decline that continues to the present day.

Recent History

The AAP convened an ad hoc Task Force under the chair of Hugh C. Thompson, M.D., to review the issue of circumcision in 1975. The 1975 Task Force reaffirmed the 1971 AAP statement.11 The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) also took a position in 1975 that circumcision is medically unnecessary.

The matter rested there until 1985, when retrospective data collected from U.S. Army medical records by Thomas Wiswell, M.D. seemed to show a somewhat higher rate of urinary tract infection (UTI) in non-circumcised boys. Careful examination of Wiswell's methods and data revealed many methodological flaws which rendered his conclusions questionable and unreliable. This created new controversy about the value of neonatal circumcision. The Canadian Paediatric Society examined Wiswell's data in 1989 and found it to be insufficiently compelling to cause it to change its 1975 policy statement, which is against circumcision.

The National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (External link NOCIRC) was formed in 1986. The mandate of NOCIRC is to provide accurate information regarding male circumcision, to promote children's rights, and to shed light on the medical mistakes of the past. Professor George C. Denniston, M.D., M.P.H., founded External link Doctors Opposing Circumcision (DOC) in 1995 to promote the health advantages of genital integrity within the medical community.

The Circumcision Information and Resource Pages (CIRP) were created in 1995 to provide a source of accurate information about circumcision on the World Wide Web.

The development of new information in the medical literature since 1975 caused the AAP to revisit the matter of circumcision in 1989. A new Task Force under the chair of Edgar J. Schoen, M.D., examined new data about neonatal pain, behavior changes, and loss of sexual sensitivity secondary to neonatal circumcision. New data also conclusively established the role of the human papillomavirus (HPV) in the pathogenesis of genital cancers. This removed any lingering belief that the prepuce somehow caused cancer.

The Canadian Paediatric Society External link revisited the matter of neonatal circumcision in 1996. A new evidence-based policy statement was issued that strengthened its 1975 recommendation, stating that circumcision is medically unnecessary. The CPS recommended: Circumcision should not be routinely performed.

The incidence of neonatal circumcision in the US has continued to decline, and stood at only 60% in 1996. In the same year, the Australian College of Paediatrics (ACP) reported that the incidence of neonatal circumcision in Australia has continued its decline to 10%. The ACP termed circumcision traumatic, a possible violation of human rights, and called for parents to be provided with full and complete information about circumcision before making a decision.

John R. Taylor and colleagues published a landmark article in 1996 that described original research into the anatomy and histology of the foreskin. The research showed that the foreskin is highly innervated tissue with the characteristics of a sensory organ designed to provide erogenous sensation.19

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), in a joint statement, reclassified neonatal circumcision from routine to elective in 1997.23 The change in policy was announced the year after the publication of Taylor's important article that describes in detail the injury inherent in every circumcision. This action removes any suggestion that circumcision is beneficial or that it is recommended by medical authorities. It may also be an attempt to shift legal liability for the injury that is inherent in every child circumcision from the doctor to the parents.

Persistent criticism of the obvious flaws of the supplemental 1989 Report of the Task Force on Circumcision has caused the AAP to distance itself from its own report. The AAP has removed its policy statement from its website. The AAP convened a new Task Force under the chair of Carole Marie Lannon, MD, in 1997 to develop a new External link evidence-based policy statement which was released in March 1999. After fully reviewing the medical evidence, the Task Force concluded that routine neonatal circumcision cannot be recommended because of lack of any proved benefit. It said that the benefits are potential (i.e. they are unproven).

The Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association issued a policy report in December 1999 that re-classified neonatal circumcision as a non-therapeutic procedure.33 This may have a medico-legal impact.

The ratio of boys circumcised to boys preserved intact continues to decline in America. In 2001, it had further declined to a ratio of 55 percent circumcised, while the percentage of boys preserved intact had risen to 45 percent.40


The Encyclopædia Britannica article from the 9th edition (1876) provides us with a Victorian view of circumcision. Interestingly, it does not mention any alleged medical purposes.2

Gairdner's historic world famous landmark classic medical article (1949) is presented.5

Preston's historic influential medical article (1970) is presented.6

External link Paige (1978) provides us with a history of cirumcision in the US. She discusses the fear of masturbation that lead to the commencement of the circumcision of boys.7

External link DeMeo (1989) says geographical patterns of global distributions of the male and female genital mutilations among native, non-Western peoples, along with history and archaeology, suggest their genesis in the deserts of Northeast Africa and the near East, with a subsequent diffusion outward into sub-Saharan, Oceania and possibly even into parts of the New World.8

External link Montagu (1991) uses anthropological knowledge to give insight into the origins of genital mutilation.9

Bigelow (1992) traces the development of various forms of circumcision within Judaism through the centuries and into modern times.11

External link Voskuil (1994) suggests that the identical 28 day lunar month and the monthly menstruation cycle of the woman are linked to the origin of circumcision.12

Gollaher (1994) describes the transformation of ritual circumcision into a medical procedure.13

External link McLaren gives us a not very complimentary portrait of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg who promoted circumcision and corn flakes as a cure for masturbation.14

Warren and Bigelow (1994) discuss the sacrificial origin of circumcision.15

Frederick M. Hodges, Jerry W. Warner. The Right to Our Own Bodies: The History of Male Circumcision in the U.S. M.E.N. Magazine 1995 (November).17

Moscucci reports the results of her research into the introduction of male circumcision to prevent masturbation in the late 19th century.18

The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion (1997) reviews the history of Jewish circumcision.20

External link DeMeo (1996) revisits his earlier work and discusses several theories regarding the origin of male and female circumcision. DeMeo identifies anxiety about sexual pleasure as the underlying psychological reason for both male and female circumcision.21

Schultheiss and others (1998) provide an account of the long history of man's attempts to restore the prepuce after unwanted circumcision.25

Dunsmuir and Gordon (1999) provide a good general history of circumcision with particular attention paid to the history of the development of surgical technique.26

Kim and colleagues provide a history of circumcision in South Korea.27

Brandes and McAninch review the history of efforts to undo the effects of male circumcision.28

Frederick Mansfield Hodges (1999) unveils the medical treatment of phimosis and paraphimosis in the classical medical literature.29

James E. Peron illuminates the development of circumcision in Jewish history from a minor procedure into a major mutilation, and how this most mutilating and injurious form of circumcision was accepted into medical practice.31

Frederick Mansfield Hodges, D. Phil., has researched the Greek and Roman attitudes toward the prepuce. He reports in this profusely illustrated document that the Greeks and Romans placed a high value on the prepuce, preferred long tapering prepuces, and later the Romans protected the prepuce by law.34

John M. Ephron reports that German Jews used medical arguments to justify and promote the practice of male circumcision to Gentiles during the 19th and early 20th centuries.35

John Evelyn observed a Jewish circumcision at Rome in 1645 and recorded it in his diary.36

See also

Library Holdings

  1. Anonymous. Clitoridectomy and Medical Ethics. Medical Times and Gazette (London) 1867:(1):391-2.
  2. Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th Ed. s.v. Circumcision, by Rev. T. K. Cheyne.
  3. Offord J. External link Restrictions concerning circumcision under the Romans PDF link. Proc R Soc Med 1913;6(Sect Hist Med):102-7. (PDF)
  4. Pirie GR. External link The story of circumcision PDF link. Can Med Assoc J 1927;17(12):1540-2. (PDF)
  5. Gairdner DA. The fate of the foreskin: a study of circumcision.. BMJ 1949;2:1433-1437.
  6. Preston EN. Whither the foreskin? A consideration of routine neonatal circumcision. JAMA 1970;213:1853-1858.
  7. Paige, Karen Eriksen. External link The ritual of circumcision. Human Nature, pp 40-48, May 1978. (Link to www.noharmm.org)
  8. James deMeo. External link The Geography of Genital Mutilations. The Truth Seeker, pp 9-13, July/August 1989. (Link to www.noharmm.org)
  9. Montagu, Ashley. External link  Mutilated Humanity. Presented at the Second International Symposium on Circumcision. San Francisco, California. April 30-May 3, 1991. (Link to www.nocirc.org)
  10. Hall RG. Epispasm: circumcision in reverse. Bible Review 1992;August:52-7.
  11. Bigelow J, Ph.D., The Development of Circumcision in Judaism. In: Bigelow J., The Joy of Uncircumcising! Hourglass Book Publishing, Aptos, California 95001, 1992, 1995. (ISBN 0-934061-22-X) (out of print)
  12. Voskuil, D, Ph.D. External link From Genetic Cosmology to Genital Cosmetics: Origin Theories of the Righting Rites of Male Circumcision. Presented at the Third International Symposium on Circumcision. University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, May 22-25, 1994. (Link to www.nocirc.org)
  13. Gollaher, David L. From ritual to science: The medical transformation of circumcision in America. Journal of Social History Volume 28 Number 1, p. 5-36 (Fall 1994).
  14. McLaren, Carrie. External link Porn Flakes: Kellogg, Graham and the Crusade for Moral Fiber. (courtesy of STAYFREE! Homepage)
  15. Warren J, Bigelow J. The case against circumcision. British Journal of Sexual Medicine, September/October 1994:6-8.
  16. John J. Tierney. External link Circumcision. In: The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913, 1997.
  17. Frederick M. Hodges, Jerry W. Warner. The Right to Our Own Bodies: The History of Male Circumcision in the U.S. M.E.N. Magazine 1995 (November)
  18. Moscucci, Ornella. Clitordectomy, Circumcision, and the Politics of Sexual Pleasure in Mid-Victorian Britain. Sexualities in Victorian Britain. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1996.
  19. Taylor JR, Lockwood AP, Taylor AJ. The prepuce: specialized mucosa of the penis and its loss to circumcision. Br J Urol 1996;77:291-295.
  20. Circumcision. In: The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford 1997.
  21. DeMeo, James. External link The Geography of Genital Mutilations. (Presented at the Fourth Symposium on Sexual Mutilations, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland. August 9-11, 1996.) Published in: Sexual Mutilations, A Human Tragedy, Plenum Press, New York, 1997 (ISBN 0-306-45589-7). (link to www.nocirc.org)
  22. Hodges FM. A short history of the institutionalization of involuntary sexual mutilations in the United States. in: Denniston GC, Milos MF (eds.), Sexual Mutilations: A Human Tragedy (New York: Plenum Publishing, 1997), pp. 17-40. (ISBN 0-306-45589-7)
  23. Oh W, Merenstein G. Fourth Edition of the Guidelines for Perinatal Care: Summary of Changes. Pediatrics 1997;100(6)1021-1027.
  24. Goldman Ronald, Ph.D., Origins and Background. In: Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective. Vanguard Publications, Boston, 1998. (ISBN 0-9644895-6-2)
  25. Schultheiss D, Truss MC, Stief CG, Jonas U. Uncircumcision: a historical review of preputial restoration. Plast Reconstr Surg 1998;101(7): 1990-1998.
  26. Dunsmuir WD, Gordon EM. The history of circumcision. BJU Int 1999; 83, Suppl. 1: 1-12.
  27. Kim DS, Lee JY, Pang MG. Male circumcision: a Korean perspective. BJU Int 1999; 83 Suppl. 1:28-33.
  28. Brandes SB, McAninch. Surgical methods of restoring the prepuce: a critical review. BJU Int 1999; 83 Suppl. 1:109-113.
  29. Hodges FM. The history of phimosis from antiquity to the present. in: Denniston GC, Hodges MF, Milos MF (eds.), Male and Female Circumcision: Medical, Legal, and Ethical Considerations in Pediatric Practice (New York/London: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishing, 1999), pp. 37-62.
  30. Hodges FM. Phimosis in antiquity. World Journal of Urology 1999; 17(3):133-136.
  31. Peron, James E. Circumcision: Then and Now. Many Blessings 2000;III:41-42.
  32. Gollaher, David A., Circumcision: A History of the World's Most Controversial Surgery. New York: Basic Books, 2000. 253 pages. (ISBN: 0-465-04397-6)
  33. Council on Scientific Affairs, American Medical Association. Report 10: Neonatal circumcision. July 6, 2000.
  34. Hodges FM. The Ideal Prepuce in Ancient Greece and Rome: Male Genital Aesthetics and Their Relation to Lipodermos, Circumcision, Foreskin Restoration, and the Kynodesme. Bull Hist Med 2001 Fall;75(3):375-405.
  35. John M. Ephron. Medicine and the German Jews. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001: 222-233. (ISBN 0-300-08377-7)
  36. John Evelyn. Diary, January 15, 1645. In: The Times, London, 15 January 2003.
  37. Robert Darby. `Where doctors differ:' The debate on circumcision as a protection against syphilis, 1855-1914. Social History of Medicine 2003;16(1):57-78.
  38. Robert Darby. The masturbation taboo and the rise of routine male circumcision: a review of the historiography. J Soc Hist 2003;36:737-57.
  39. Robert J L Darby. External link Medical history and medical practice: persistent myths about the foreskin. Med J Aust 2003; 178(4):178-9.
  40. Bollinger D. (2003) Intact Versus Circumcised: Normal versus Circumcised: U.S. Neonatal Male Genital Ratio. Circumcision Reference Library (an original online publication), 22 April 2003.
  41. Darby R. External link The riddle of the sands: circumcision, history, and myth. N Z Med J 2005;118(1218):U1564.
  42. Androutsos G. External link The truth about Louis XVI's marital difficulties. Prog Urol 2002;12:132-7. (Translated from the French by Dennis Harrison.)

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