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  • Pathologizing Leaky Male Bodies: Spermatorrhea in Nineteenth-Century British Medicine and Popular Anatomical Museums
  • Elizabeth Stephens (bio)

Dr. Kahn’s Treatise on the Philosophy of Marriage, in its forty-seventh edition in 1863, follows the convention of many nineteenth-century popular medical texts in including letters from a number of his patients describing the disorders from which they were suffering. He cites the following letter in his chapter “On the Abnormal Conditions of the Generative Organs”:

I am twenty-seven years of age, of a delicate, nervous temperament; I am single, and likely to remain so, unless you can assist me; for there is no disguising the fact, I am impotent through the effects of self- pollution, which I practised from eleven years of age until twenty-two, when I became acquainted with its mischief and left it off for ever. I then obtained medical advice, which gave me only temporary relief. . . . I am much afraid I am suffering from Spermatorrhoea. . . . I have a slight cough always on me, with shortness of breathing, and I am very thin. I often turn very giddy when rising or stooping hurriedly. Reading the slightest thing of a sentimental character brings tears to my eyes, which I cannot help, although I feel them to be maudlin. . . . I have no confidence in myself. I blush and look guilty at the slightest thing said to me, whether right or wrong; blushing and becoming pallid by turns.1

In understanding such a wide spectrum of infirmities, physical ailments, personal problems, mental frailties, sentimentality, and sexual peccadilloes as the symptoms of a single syndrome, this letter is typical of the correspondence sent by thousands of worried men to physicians and popular medical figures like Kahn in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century. At this time lapses in mental and physical self-control such as those cataloged in this letter—blushing, crying, exhaustion, breathlessness, [End Page 421] masturbation, melancholy, lack of confidence, extreme sensitivity, and self-consciousness—came to be seen as signs of a serious sexual disorder in men, one that was described by Victorian physicians as among “the most dire, excruciating and deadly maladies to which the human frame is subject.”2 Reflecting both an increased medical scrutiny of the male body and the production of new male sexualities and subjectivities at the midcentury, spermatorrhea represents a unique episode in the history of medicine and the male body in which the fear of leakiness and fluidity historically displaced onto the female body comes to be directed at a pathologized white, male, middle-class, and heterosexual body that has traditionally shaped norms about sexuality and corporeality.

A number of recent texts—notably Ellen Bayuk Rosenman’s “Body Doubles: The Spermatorrhea Panic” and Robert Darby’s A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain—have contextualized the spermatorrhea epidemic within histories of nineteenth-century medicine, within which, as we will see below, it certainly represents an important and very odd episode.3 A particularly instructive aspect of this disorder, as Rosenman recognizes, is its fictiveness: “Why, since it did not exist, did spermatorrhea have to be invented?” she questions.4 What spermatorrhea reveals is not the material conditions under which an epidemic of actual seminal incontinence came to afflict men in the second half of the nineteenth century but rather the circumstances in which new institutional and discursive constructions of masculinity emerged at this time. In examining the emergence and development of the spermatorrhea epidemic, this article aims to extend previous research in this field in two ways. First, it broadens consideration of the institutional contexts in which spermatorrhea was diagnosed and treated to include popular anatomical museums like Kahn’s, in whose Handbook of Dr Kahn’s Museum the Treatise on the Philosophy of Marriage was included. Second, it argues that the epidemic number of patients identified as “spermatorrheaics” in the second half of the nineteenth century is only partly attributable to the medical institutionalization of this condition and must also take into account the willingness of men like the letter writer cited above to internalize its symptoms and to identify themselves as sufferers, reflecting a complicity in...


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pp. 421-438
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