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A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain Hardcover – August 1, 2005

ISBN-13: 978-0226136455 ISBN-10: 0226136450 Edition: 1st
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Editorial Reviews


"A Surgical Temptation reveals the history of practice, and the arguments for and against circumcision in the United Kingdom from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Robert Darby has undertaken an extremely worthwhile topic that adds considerably to our knowledge of sexual attitudes and medical practices. It should be of interest to a wide range of audiences interested in the history of medicine, gender, and sexuality."
(Lesley A. Hall 2004-09-21)

"Circumcision has a truly fascinating history, involving medicine and sexuality with some masculinity thrown in. Robert Darby's book provides exceptional detail and sound judgment about the modern evolution of the practice in Britain, in turn one of the most interesting national cases available. A very interesting study."
(Peter N. Stearns 2005-03-15)

"If A Surgical Temptation were merely a history of circumcision in Britain, it would succeed. But it is much more than that. For Robert Darby, medical debates about circumcision become a window through which to address bigger themes—the ways in which medical attitudes about male sexuality developed and changed slowly from the eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. And that really serves to make his even bigger claim—that through its effort to control men's sexuality and discussion about men's sexuality, modern British medicine began to constitute itself as a culturally legitimate expert knowledge."
(Michael Kimmel SUNY, Stony Brook 2005-03-15)

"Left to its devices, the human male foreskin goes on its merry way, but Victorian England would have none of that. The uncircumcised penis was blamed for the 'moral and physical decay' of syphilis and masturbation, while doctors characterised the emission of sperm as 'a life-threatening illness that demanded drastic treatment if there was to be any hope of a cure'. Medical historian Robert Darby, . . . brilliantly records the rise of circumcision as 'a miracle-working cure-all' for many ills, including hysteria."
(Tony Maniaty Weekend Australian 2006-09-12)

“Darby traces a gradual process that began in the 18th century with a ‘great fear’ of the moral and medical consequences of masturbation. . . . The principal value of Darby’s research lies in the detailed description, based on original sources, of changing attitudes toward sexuality and how, in turn, these attitudes changed the way physicians and nonphysicians viewed the human body.”
(David L. Gollaher New England Journal of Medicine)

"This book should be required reading for American physicians in particular, especially those who continue to perform an operation seldom practiced in the rest of the world and who might not know why it was originally begun."
(Robert A. Nye JAMA)

"A meticulously designed study, packed with historical detail. . . . A Surgical Temptation will be recognized as a major contribution to our understanding of the way beliefs about sexuality have shaped medical practice, and vice versa."
(Leonard B. Glick Sexuality Research & Social Policy)

"Historians, ethicists, physicians, developmental biologists, and sociologists should find this book a fertile and provocative resource."
(Ruth E. Walton American Journal of Human Biology)

"In emphasizing the nonscientific reasons behind both the rise and fall of circumcision, Darby not only illuminates the historical background of this topic but reminds us of the often subjective nature of medical theories and practices. . . . Revealing the complex array of factors that lie behind the history of circumcision, Darby's work is of significance not only for students and historians of medicine, gender, and sexuality, but also for those engaged in current debates surrounding the practice itself."
(Janet Miron ISIS)

"Darby's fascinating and detailed book both chronicles this grisly story and tries to explain it. . . . As a social history of the relations between public anxieties and professional establishments, Darby's book could hardly be bettered."
(Ben Knights Men & Masculinity)

"Darby has written a marvellous read, judicious in his judgement, highly empathic in his reading and deep with insight. He shows the folly and sheer unnecessary butchery of circumcision."
(Mark W. Bufton History)

"Darby has added a fascinating chapter to the history of sexuality by detailing the attitudes toward the foreskin and the rise of circumcision in Britain. . . . In addition to its careful attention to detail and its impressive range of observations, the book is largely a pleasure to read. Clear and carefully argued, it builds a case that is as fascinating as it is penetrating. . . . Awonderful study that I would recommend without qualification to historians of sexuality and medicine."
(George Haggerty Journal of the History of Sexuality)

From the Inside Flap

In the eighteenth century, the Western world viewed circumcision as an embarrassing disfigurement peculiar to Jews. A century later, British doctors urged parents to circumcise their sons as a routine precaution against every imaginable sexual dysfunction, from syphilis and phimosis to masturbation and bed-wetting. Thirty years later the procedure again came under hostile scrutiny, culminating in its disappearance during the 1960s.

Why Britain adopted a practice it had traditionally abhorred and then abandoned it after only two generations is the subject of A Surgical Temptation. Robert Darby reveals that circumcision has always been related to the question of how to control male sexuality. This study explores the process by which the male genitals, and the foreskin especially, were pathologized, while offering glimpses into the lives of such figures as James Boswell, John Maynard Keynes, and W. H. Auden. Examining the development of knowledge about genital anatomy, concepts of health, sexual morality, the rise of the medical profession, and the nature of disease, Darby shows how these factors transformed attitudes toward the male body and its management and played a vital role in the emergence of modern medicine.

An erudite, lively, and sometimes combative investigation of a formative period in medical history, A Surgical Temptation will inform and engage any reader with an interest in the history of medicine, gender, sexuality, the practice of circumcision in the world today, and the ways in which culture fashions the human body.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (August 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226136450
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226136455
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,603,162 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I am an independent scholar and freelance writer living in Canberra, the capital of Australia. I began my writing and research career as a literary historian, with a PhD on Australian literature and politics in the 1930s, but my interests have broadened since then to include many topics in cultural, social and medical history, as well as ethics and current affairs. My major published work so far has been a detailed account of the rise and fall of routine "health" circumcision in Britain (A Surgical Temptation, 2005), and since then I have written widely on medical, historical and ethical aspects of both male and female circumcision - which I regard as primarily a human rights and social justice issue, not really a medical issue at all. I have also prepared a collection of the medical writings of Arthur Conan Doyle, Round the Red Lamp (Valancourt Books, 2007), and an edited edition of Elements of Social Science by the great Victorian iconoclast George Drysdale. Although he is largely forgotten today, his book was extremely popular throughout the second half of the 19th Century as a source of information and advice on "the facts of life" and especially contraception. My most recent article is "The child's right to an open future: Is the principle applicable to non-therapeutic circumcision", published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, July 2013. For further information see the following websites:



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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Michael Johnson on February 14, 2006
Format: Hardcover
In this book Dr Robert Darby has examined Victorian thinking on male sexuality. In doing so he has exposed the roots of the thinking which still permeates medical and social attitudes to

circumcision in English-speaking countries. It is easy enough to be aware of the general nature of this negative energy around male sexuality, but until A Surgical Temptation exposed me to its murkiest depths I did not really understand where it all came from, or how mad it really is!

At the centre of the book is Victorian medical men's hatred of the foreskin - and their frank if backhanded acknowledgement of how significantly the foreskin contributes to sexual pleasure: they realised that it is easier and more pleasurable for a boy to play with his penis if it still has all its moving parts. This is the fundamental reason for the surgical temptation and the demonisation of the foreskin in the title.

There is an indignant voice behind the detailed historical research that quietly asks us to question modern practice and attitudes. Routine circumcision rates remain high in the United States and many developing countries. Much lower rates are found in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. My suspicion is that the reasons for this are to be found in the same misinformed Victorian prudery that the book so expertly and thoroughly exposes.

I notice that Dr Darby has outlined some of the arguments in his book in an article published by American Sexuality Magazine. The book has been referred to as, "required reading" in a review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Brady Richardson on June 30, 2006
Format: Hardcover
The first pages of the first chapter quickly dispel any notion that genital cutting of infants and children has ever had a medical purpose.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By J. Steven Svoboda on November 29, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Medical historian Robert Darby and the University of Chicago Press have released A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin & the Rise of Circumcision in Britain. A Surgical Temptation is another of several books published in recent years by intactivists or sympathizers with intactivism. (Full disclosure: While in Australia in 2003, I spent some brief yet treasured time with the author, who more recently has joined with me in coauthoring a paper currently under consideration for publication.) Given the publisher, the book naturally boasts top production values. Darby is simply superb as a medical historian, writer, and analyst of the historical forces that gave rise to medicalized circumcision in Britain (mainly England) starting in the second half of the nineteenth century. The author has a remarkable knack for unearthing and piecing together arcane data literally wrung from the dustiest, darkest corners of the world's top medical libraries, then synthesizing cogent conclusions regarding the social and medical forces that produces the ghastly, bizarre history he recounts.

Intriguingly, Darby speculates on p. 99, "If all doctors had been as coolly inductive [as John Snow was in 1849 in identifying cholera's transmission via a water pump], and if the genitals had been regarded as neutrally as the digestive tract, circumcision as a preventive health measure might never have been heard of." The author outlines in detail the various forms of backward thinking in the field of sexual medicine that enabled circumcision to endure in Britain for far longer than should have happened. Indeed, many of these errors in reasoning and fact-gathering continue to be used even today, wittingly or otherwise, often in somewhat modified form, to excuse and justify neonatal penile amputation.
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Format: Hardcover
this book is readable in a manner most eminent, possessing a smoothness of wordcrafting with a deep knowledge of subject matter. the elucidation of circumcision's origins are neutral and a delight to read.
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