Sex, Drugs, And Rock And Roll

Sex symbols ancient and modern: their origins and iconography on the pedigree

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 22 December 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:1509
  1. G D Schott, consultant neurologist (
  1. 1National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London WC1N 3BG

    Sex symbols on pedigrees were illustrated quite differently 150 years ago. What brought about the change?

    Nowadays no scientific paper on genetics involving an extensive family history would be complete without depiction of the pedigree, on which squares represent the male members of the family and circles represent the females. But it was not always so, and a century ago ancient and modern symbols vied with each other in the genetic and eugenic literature.1 The origin and iconography of these symbols, one pair with a history dating back many centuries, the other pair originating in 1845, are the subjects of this discussion.

    Classical origins

    At the beginning of the 20th century the male and female symbols on pedigrees (fig 1) were often variations of the ancient symbols classically associated with Mars and Venus. The history of their introduction into medicine was lengthy and circuitous, beginning with astronomy and astrology—and leading via alchemy, chemistry, and pharmacy to botany—before reaching human biology and genetics.2

    Fig 1

    One version of the classical male and female symbols on a pedigree. Filled symbols denote clinically affected individuals with facio-scapulo-humeral muscular dystrophy10

    For the ancients, movements of the heavenly bodies seemed to influence the seasons and thus the cycles of growth of plants and of breeding of animals. These heavenly bodies had become associated with the names of gods, a concept the ancient Greeks acquired from the Babylonians. Later, religious rites that revolved around the seasons and were practised by many crafts (but particularly those involving metal-work) formed the links between the gods, …

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