Circumcision: A History of the World's Most Controversial Surgery

Circumcision: A History of the World's Most Controversial Surgery

Circumcision: A History of the World's Most Controversial Surgery

Circumcision: A History of the World's Most Controversial Surgery


How has a medical practice that carries substantial risk to the patient and offers very little actual benefit become so widely accepted by parents and fiercely advocated by the medical community? Historian of medicine David Gollaher tells the strange history of medicine's oldest enigma and most persistent ritual in Circumcision. From the extraordinarily painful initiation rite of the ancient Egyptians, through the Hebrew purification ritual, through circumcision's use by the rising medical community in the nineteenth century as prevention for ailments ranging from bedwetting to paralysis, the great mystery has been the persistence of the practice through vastly different social contexts.


Circumcision is the oldest enigma in the history of surgery. It is far easier to imagine the impulse behind Neolithic cave painting than to guess what inspired the ancients to cut their genitals or the genitals of their young. Yet millennia ago, long before medicine and religion branched into separate streams of wisdom -- indeed, long before history itself -- cutting the foreskin of the penis was invented as a symbolic wound; thus circumcision became a ritual of extraordinary power.

Some groups adopted circumcision as a divine injunction, a mark of the gods, or of God. To outsiders the practice seemed inexplicable. Why, Greeks wondered derisively of Jews, would any people routinely mutilate their young? In time the mystery lessened, though not because the surgery disappeared. It merely became familiar, an essential feature of Judaism and Islam, and then in modern times, of Anglo-American medicine.

Still, familiarity scarcely resolved the riddle of circumcision. Down through the ages, the operation's ritual and religious meanings remained cloaked in obscurity. As for medical circumcision, which swept America and Britain around the turn of the twentieth century, physicians and laypeople alike remain ferociously divided about the risks, benefits, and ethics of the procedure. Mountains of research have produced no general agreement about the medical evidence. Indeed, the ongoing battle between advocates and opponents of circumcision bears out William Osler's dictum that in such disputes, the greater the ignorance, the greater the dogmatism."

This book is a history, not a polemic nor a tract for the times. Throughout, I've endeavored to write a balanced account that accurately reflects what people, at different times, thought and did. The historian Carl Becker once described history quite elegantly as providing "the artificial extension of social memory." In this instance, I'm interested in reaching deep into the past, to the very limits of social memory, and, at the same time, exploring the history of the present to chronicle the patterns of thought and behavior that characterize circumcision in the present age.

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