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History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences - Vol. 35, no. 3 (2013)
Article

Ilana Löwy, Sex on a Slide: Antoine Lacassagne and the Search for a Microscopic Definition of Masculinity and Femininity


Abstract

In 1919, the French pathologist and pioneer of radiotherapy of cancer, Antoine Lacassagne, studied the case of a young man of indeterminate sexuality (a condition later named “intersex,” and recently renamed, “disorders of sexual development”). Lacassagne’s argument that the patient was a “true” hermaphrodite, that is, an individual who possesses at the same time male and female sexual glands, was grounded exclusively in his study of microscopic preparations. Such preparations were seen as the definitive proof of the “true biological sex” of a given person, seen as a fixed entity. On the other hand, Lacassagne’s definition of biological, or rather histological sex, was dissociated from sexuality, sexual orientation and sex/gender identity. In the 1930s, the isolation of sex hormones made it possible to modulate specific sexual traits, thus destabilizing the concept of a fixed biological sex. It did not undermine, however, the central role of histological proofs. Sex on a slide continued to be seen as definitive evidence of the “true” sexual identity of an individual, but from the 1930s this proof was valid only for the time when a given microscopic preparation had been manufactured.


Keywords

Microscope slides, Antoine Lacassagne, hermaphrodite, histology, gonads, hormones


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