Unsexing gonorrhoea: Bacteriologists, gynaecologists, and suffragists in Britain, 1860-1920

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    In the 1860s, surgeons regarded gonorrhoea as a disease that largely affected men, being almost sex-specific. Yet, surgeons reported that gonorrhoeal poisons were often spread to men by healthy women, implying that many females were carriers. By the first two decades of the twentieth century, gonorrhoea had been unsexed and was remade as a communicable disease, caused by the gonococcus, that affected both sexes. In fact, gynaecologists and feminists increasingly argued that gonorrhoea was much more serious in women than men, causing pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, and even death. The obvious explanation of this change is that it followed from the recognition of the 'true nature' of gonorrhoea, after Albert Neisser's discovery of the causal microbe in 1879. In this article, I argue that events were more complex and I show that closure on a new aetiology and pathology was contested and lengthy. In these negotiations, bacteriologists played a relatively minor role; far more important were gynaecologists and obstetricians acting in the context of struggles over specialization with general surgeons and midwives, the emergence of new specialists in venereal diseases, and the campaigning activities of women doctors and suffragists.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)41-59
    Number of pages18
    JournalSocial History of Medicine
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2004


    • Bacteriology
    • Gonorrhoea
    • Great Britain
    • Gynaecology
    • Midwifery
    • Nineteenth century
    • Suffrage movement
    • Twentieth century
    • Venereal diseases


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