Where doctors differ: the debate on circumcision as a protection against syphilis, 1855-1914

Journal of the Society For the Social History of Medicine (Oxford), Volume 16, Issue 1: Pages 57-58, April 2003.

By Robert DARBY*


During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there were two views on the relationship between syphilis and male circumcision: one was that circumcision provided protection, another that circumcision was a significant source of syphilic infection. This article reviews that debate, relates the first view to an influential article by Jonathan Hutchinson in 1855 and considers the subsequent use made of his statistics. It is suggested that the original statistics were of dubious value and that the promise of protection against syphilis was an additional argument for doctors who were keen to introduce universal circumcision for other reasons, the most significant of which were related to the conviction that it would discourage masturbation. The article further considers the controversy over whether Jews were healthier than other peoples, and the interaction among medical, moral, and customary/religious reasons for circumcising boys, and concludes that, while the operation never played any role in control of syphilis, circumcision was a considerable cause of illness and death among male infants before the standardization of aseptic operating techniques.


circumcision, foreskin, syphilis, venereal disease, Jonathan Hutchinson, Abraham Wolbarst, E. Harding Freeland, masturbation, diseases of children.

* 15 Morehead Steet, Curtin ACT 2605, Australia. E-mail: robild@webbone1.com.au


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