Historicising Surgery: Sex, Gender, Technology and the Surgical Imaginary

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The anatomical body figures as a privileged site in the signification of sexual difference. This paper argues that the historical discourses and practices of surgery are implicated in this figuration of the body as composed of sexually differentiated anatomical parts. Through historical analysis of the institutional and discursive developments of British surgery in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the paper demonstrates how surgeons promoted an anatomical view of the body as representative of scientific, empirical knowledge. During this period, surgeons were deemed of lower medical and social status than physicians because, unlike physicians, surgeons physically touched the patient’s body and were not university trained. In order to gain medical authority, surgeons thus had to resignify their practices (which included dissection) and approach to the body as illustrative of scientific knowledge, worthy of gentlemen. In contrast to the medical orthodoxy of physicians who diagnosed disease through external symptoms, surgeons attributed disease to the internal, material structures of the body and advocated surgical intervention as a means of medical management. In doing so, the human body was reconceived as an anatomical form, comprised of different parts of which surgeons have privileged access to and knowledge of. As this view gained legitimacy over the course of the nineteenth century, understandings about sexual difference became anatomically, and hence surgically, legitimised. This paper thus argues that the practices and discourses of surgery, and the surgeons implicated in its development, are instrumental in the historical production and ongoing reproduction of anatomy as a site of sexual significance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)341-359
Number of pages19
JournalSocial Semiotics
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2007


  • Surgery, anatomy, gender, sex, technology


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