Anatomical Expertise and the Hermaphroditic Body

Palmira Fontes da Costa


In his influential work, A social history of truth, Steven Shapin (1995) has argued for the central role of social status in the assessment of experimental knowledge. In his view, in seventeenth-century England, gentlemen were considered the right kind of persons to trust because of their freedom of action, codes of virtue and honour. These characteristics ensured credibility and, hence, compelled assent. However, Shapin does not put sufficient emphasis on the relevance of the testifier’s competence in the validation of knowledge. When and in which circumstances did expertise become more important than social status in the accreditation of natural knowledge? [...]
I argue in this paper that it is in the realm of interpretation of unusual and ambiguous anatomies that medical and, in particular, anatomical expertise assumed its most crucial role. Moreover, the medical understanding of the hermaphroditic body in the eighteenth century can be considered one of the most illustrative cases of the construction and display of anatomical expertise. In fact, several of the academic memoirs and dissertations published on hermaphrodites in the eighteenth century attempted precisely to fulfil this purpose...

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