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Reviews Book

A Surgical Temptation: The Demonisation of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 19 January 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:183
  1. Stefan Bailis, director,
  2. Daniel Halperin (, assistant professor
  1. Research and Education Association on Circumcision Health Effects, Bloomington, Minnesota
  2. AIDS Research Center, University of California, San Francisco

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    University of Chicago Press, £24.50/$35, pp 368 ISBN 0 226 13645 0

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    Robert Darby's stated reason for this book is “an attempt to explain the sudden vogue for male circumcision in Victorian Britain.” He meticulously examines a variety of medical, social, religious, and other factors that led to the popularity of male circumcision in Great Britain in the late 19th century and to its decline in the 20th. Darby's work is largely based on original sources, a daunting task considering that many probably had to be retrieved from deep storage. The book's last sentence summarises its main thesis: “The long careers of spermatorrhea, masturbatory illness, and circumcision itself show just how easy it is for modern medicine to retain irrational elements from its variegated past.”

    The reader, immersed into the zeitgeist of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, comes to understand many of the moral factors that were intertwined with medical concerns in increasing the popularity of circumcision. For example, nerve force theory and its related disorder, reflex neurosis, were for a time …

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