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  • The Most Secret Quintessence of Life: Sex, Glands, and Hormones, 1850–1950
  • Howard H. Chiang
The Most Secret Quintessence of Life: Sex, Glands, and Hormones, 1850–1950. By Chandak Sengoopta. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. Pp. 360. $45.00 (cloth).

Following Michel Foucault's astute observation concerning the nineteenth-century transfer of the technology of the sexual self from the spiritual realm of pastoral confession to the secular discourse of medical science, historians of sexuality have gone a long way to go inside what he called scientia sexualis and probe the historical relationship between sexuality and science in the past two centuries.1 Notable examples include the work of Steven Angelides on the subject of bisexuality, Bernice Hausman and Joanne Meyerowitz on transsexuality, Jennifer Terry and Vernon Rosario on homosexuality, and Alice Dreger and Anne Fausto-Sterling on intersexuality.2 A relevant corpus of literature has addressed similar issues with a more immediate focus around the locus of the body as a material site of historical interrogation and periodization.3 All in all, it seems that many important works in the field of the history of sexuality have been produced by historians of medicine and the life and human sciences in particular. Chandak Sengoopta's The Most Secret Quintessence of Life typifies the convergence of all these historiographic threads: as a historian of biology and medicine, Sengoopta traces a century [End Page 360] of transformation of the body in concert with how conceptualizations of sex shifted in accordance to the rise and decline of endocrine hegemony in both the laboratory and the clinic from 1850 to 1950.

To be more precise, the body that Sengoopta's story seeks to interrogate historically is decisively a "sexual" and, I would add, biologized one. In adopting Lesley Hall's terminology "the sexual body,"4 Sengoopta's definition "includes everything embraced by the notion of the secondary sexual characters: sexual appearance, sexual attractiveness, sexual function, and all that might be related to those attributes" (3). Whereas the relationship between the psyche-soma dimensions of sexuality and the human sciences (psychiatry and psychoanalysis) has been the spotlight of analysis in the works of other scholars such as Ronald Bayer, Elizabeth Lunbeck, and Harry Oosterhuis,5 Sengoopta's book takes an alternative approach to the sexual body by historicizing how it had been constructed through the biomedical discourse of glandular science—how it had been "mediated and produced by the internal secretions" (3). Shifting our attention away from the human sciences and toward biomedicine, Sengoopta chronicles a refreshing perspective on the historical relationship between science, medicine, and sexuality in Western culture by bringing into sharper focus less familiar terrains of sex research such as gynecology, physiology, neurology, and biochemistry.

Sengoopta's emphasis on biomedicine stems from his interest in demonstrating that at the heart of the historical trajectory he traces concerning how the body was conceived, shaped, and mediated through endocrine science lies something even more fundamental than an argument about sex or sexuality per se: in his words, "The Most Secret Quintessence of Life shows how the gonadal secretions became fundamental to sex and how sex itself became a virtual synonym for life itself" (2, emphasis added). Given its overarching character, this central thesis of Sengoopta's book is certainly verifiable by his methodological approach. Drawing on minimal private correspondences and archival documents, Sengoopta instead synthesizes a meticulous range of scientific and medical publications (114 pages of notes for 213 pages of text) across two continents and disciplinary boundaries, an approach particularly adequate for testing his claim that sex came to be perceived as the essence of life between the mid-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century. If social history and conceptual history represent two extremes of a continuum, the strengths of this book definitely [End Page 361] lean toward the conceptual history end, although a convincing argument certainly can be made about how medical experts' account of their patients could be treated as evidence of experience and as signposts of social and historical happenings.

The general narrative arc of the book can be summarized as follows: since the seventeenth century and before the advent of endocrine science, the nervous system...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 360-366
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-12
Open Access
No
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