Alice Domurat Dreger

All original material © Alice Domurat Dreger, 1996-2013.

Now in its sixth printing and translated into Czech....And don’t ask me why they put a nekked lady on the Czech version. (When the mate saw it, he said, “You know, when you’re really famous they put the author photo on the front cover.”)

Punctuated with remarkable case studies, this book explores extraordinary encounters between hermaphrodites—people born with “ambiguous” sexual anatomy—and the medical and scientific professionals who were confronted by them. Alice Dreger focuses on events in France and Britain in the late nineteenth century, a moment of great tension for questions of sex roles. While feminists, homosexuals, and anthropological explorers openly questioned the natures and purposes of the two sexes, anatomical hermaphrodites led doctors and scientists to another surprisingly difficult question: what is sex, really? (From the book jacket.)

I know of over 50 published reviews of Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex. Most of them are enthusiastically positive about the book. Which reminds me: Vern Bullough, this is not a post-modernist deconstructionist work! I don’t even know what the heck that means…except I know I’m a raving modernist and I know I’m not really sure how to deconstruct anything but an artichoke.

Now, here are some folks who know what they’re talking about:

New England Journal of Medicine:

“This engaging, well-written book will benefit scholars and lay readers interested in the history of sex, sexuality, gender, and medicine. The book traces the evolution of what makes a person male or female and shows how the answer has changed depending on when the question was asked and where it was asked. Dreger has succeeded in compelling the reader to ask the same question.” - Patricia Y. Fechner

Journal of the History of Medicine:

“In her book, Alice Dreger sets out to convince the reader that the history of hermaphrodites, or people of ambiguous sex, is an important and interesting topic, and she more than accomplishes her goal. Not only does she deliver, but she does so with grace, ease, and compassion. This is a marvelous book, an unexpected surprise which is as readable and engaging as it is informative…Within pages of opening the book, I was enthralled.”

- H. Hughes Evans, Ph.D.


“This is a well-researched, sober history of a problem that Alice Dreger shows has directly affected more people than we might think and which shapes the sense of sexual identity of us all…Avoiding preachy judgementalism, Dreger shows how deeply ingrained are our assumptions about gender normality (sexual anatomy is destiny) and on how flimsy a basis they have been grounded. The book offers us all a lesson in self-awareness.”

- Roy Porter, Ph.D.

JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association):

“The historic records of [people with intersex]…are carefully documented by this meticulous author and merit study…To read this book is to become aware of the tremendous complexity of human sexuality and gender identity—beyond genitals, hormones, enzymes, and even chromosomes and genes. Behavior, feelings, and values blend with intellect and how each individual is sexually drawn to each other.” - Domeena C. Renshaw, M.D.

Times Literary Supplement:

“In her study of the medical response to human hermaphrodites, Alice Dreger draws on over 300 scientific and medical commentaries in France and Britain, of which over half the cases reported occurred between 1860 and 1915…As Dreger observes, there was no single opinion among doctors or the public at large about which traits were essentially male or female, or even what they might signify. In Britain, female facial hair was likely to be associated with insanity, while in France it was more likely to be seen as a mark of remarkable strength. Other interesting differences emerge…Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex is richly researched, detailed and fascinating.”

- Angelique Richardson

The Sciences:

“Dreger…has found a rich mine in the clinical case histories of hermaphroditism, which outline the physicians’ complex struggle to find a foolproof way of fitting individuals into a binary sexual scheme.” -Laurence A. Marschall

Women’s Review of Books:

“Most people have heard the term ‘hermaphrodite,’ but aren’t quite sure what it means. [This book serves] as an introduction to that topic, bringing the voices of intersex people…into dialogue with…experts. Dreger also includes many fascinating historical photographs. Her stories of detective doctors presiding over ‘doubtful-sex gatherings’ show how ‘again and again, consultations with fellow medical men almost invariably, rather than clearing up confusion, resulted instead in deeper and broader doubt…Medical men often discovered that too many diagnosers spoiled the certainty’…What makes [this book] important and provocative also makes [it] a little dangerous because [it] is so ahead of [its] time.” - Leonore Tiefer

Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review:

“Through a collection of dramatic and moving medical case histories from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Dreger argues that the medical profession increasingly claimed the knowledge and authority to determine ‘true’ gender and to effectuate such determination by surgical means…[This] is a wonderful example that historical writing is not merely about revisiting the past, but reshaping the future. This book will prove fascinating and moving reading for those concerned with the ways in which biomedical knowledge is deployed in the service of the cultural regulation of gender and sexuality.” - Vernon Rosario, M.D., Ph.D.

Medical History:

“[A] perceptive, erudite and superbly-written book…Concentrating on late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain and France, Dreger analyses how defining and ‘managing’ hermaphroditism were crucial to the destabilization as well as a simultaneous—and only seemingly paradoxical—reinforcement of the sexual division of humanity into male and female. In a surprisingly well-integrated epilogue of the book, she establishes that present-day treatment of hermaphrodites in America, in spite of phenomenal advancements in surgical technologies and theoretical understanding of sexual physiology, continues to be guided by ideas about the nature and meaning of sex that would not have seemed unfamiliar to fin-de-siecle doctors.”

- Chandak Sengoopta, M.D., Ph.D.

Feminism & Psychology:

“In her compelling, highly engaging and carefully researched book, Dreger charts the individual stories of many hermaphrodites—often with accompanying photographs…[It is] vital reading for feminists in that [it] offers detailed illustrations of scientific and medical complicity with social norms of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, and raises important questions about how cultures enforce ideas about ‘normal’ bodily conditions and behaviours. -Celia Kitzinger, Ph.D.

Social History of Medicine:

“Dreger has produced a well-written, lucid and sensitive account of the medical treatment of hermaphrodites from the latter half of the nineteenth century through to the present day…Dreger’s description of the way modern doctors persist in assuming that they, and not the individual concerned or society, have the right to define an individual’s sex are particularly illuminating. This book will be immensely interesting to historians working in this area and anyone concerned with intersexuality.” - Helen Blackman

Intersex Society of North America:

The casual browser who picks up this book and thinks that hermaphrodism has nothing to do with her or him is mistaken. Dreger illuminates the process by which medicine appropriated to itself the authority first to interpret and then to ‘fix’ sex difference. This is a specific example of a widespread but largely invisible phenomenon, in which cultural agendas are disguised as scientific authority. The medical abuse of individuals born with atypical sex anatomy in fact serves everyone who holds the unscientific belief that the world is divided neatly into two clearly distinguished sexes. Dreger has written a book that should interest not only medical historians, professionals concerned with intersexuality, and intersexuals themselves, but everyone who thinks she knows her sex.” - Cheryl Chase, Executive Director

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Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex