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Physiologies of generation and the culture of sensibility in 18th-century Britain

May 7, 2012

Work in progress – by Darren Wagner

Describing my doctoral work can evoke the odd blush or chuckle. Such reactions are perhaps implicit to my research topic: genitalia in the 18th century. More specifically, I investigate physiological theories, anatomical displays and literary representations of genitalia. The physiologies I examine have nerves and animal spirits transmitting actions, sensations and even reproductive material between the brain and organs of generation. These physiological theories developed within a specific cultural moment, one that had a significant preoccupation with how the body and the mind affected each other. Accordingly, I have found that corresponding ideas about nerves and genitalia are found in both sexual scenarios in literature of sensibility and in medical or anatomical treatises explaining generation.

Between 1660 and 1770, anatomists made a substantial effort to discover ‘the secrets of generation’. How did arousal and erections occur? Which sex created and emitted seed? What was seed made of? And what were the medical consequences of having sexual intercourse? To explore these questions, new theories, instruments and procedures were invented. Animal spirits, an ethereal nerve fluid, became the most influential theory. These spirits coursed through the nerves, conveying sensations and responses between the body and mind. The actions of these animal spirits explained sexual pleasure, arousal and pain. Also, this highly refined substance was considered the principal material in generating human seed. A Harveian circulatory model applied to the animal spirits meant that ejaculation deprived the body and brain of these spirits, which led to terrible melancholic symptoms following venery. As more medical and physiological attention was given to nerves, genitalia became more regularly defined as particularly nervous.

Anatomical tools and preparations affirmed these reproductive physiologies based on animal spirits. Increasingly, anatomists prepared genitalia displays with air inflation or injections of water, dyes, waxes or mercury. They developed specialised tools such as probes, pipes and syringes to perform these preparations. Techniques and practices such as creating corrosion casts of wax-injected vasculature and preserving tissues in spirits became gradually refined and widely disseminated. As part of the growing museum display culture, these developments in instruments, techniques and theories led to visually stunning displays of genitalia. Most importantly for physiologists, inflations and injections emphasised the cavities, potential spaces and vessels that animal spirits along with other bodily fluids were believed to flow through.

The genito-urinary system, after Eustachius,  Cheselden & De Graaf, 1743. Wellcome Library

The genito-urinary system, after Eustachius, Cheselden & De Graaf, 1743. Wellcome Library

Several anatomists gained high repute for their fine genital preparations. Fredrik Ruysch was praised for his preservation fluid and intricate displays. William Cowper gained acclaim for his inflations, as did Herman Boerhaave and Regnier de Graaf. Yet the most telling instance of genital preparations affecting an anatomist’s reputation was the fierce priority dispute and paper war between William Hunter and Alexander Monro Secundus over discoveries about lymphatics. A central proof in this dispute was a mercury injection of an epididymis, an example of which furnished John Hunter’s dining hall and is still prominently displayed in its gilt frame in the Hunterian Museum, London. But the influence of these displays extended well beyond the small circle of anatomists or the vocational interests of physicians.

Throughout the 18th century, the growth of theoretical, anatomical and physiological interest in generation paralleled a public interest in sexual health and curiosity about the natural history of generation. The interests of these groups converged in museums, wherein anatomical demonstrations of the organs of generation served for medical training, personal edification and polite entertainment. Exhibitions of anatomical preparations and waxworks that featured reproductive organs, such as Rackstrowe’s Museum, purposely exploited the sexual curiosity of the public. Whether through museums, published treatises, public lectures or personal conversations, physiological theories about the organs of generation permeated British society.

A seemingly unconnected cultural phenomenon developed during this same period, now commonly referred to as the cult of sensibility. Most evident in literary records, this movement was defined by an acute social attention to a fine and delicate emotional and physiological sensitivity to one’s external environment. Literary characters such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Henry Mackenzie’s Harley, Tobias Smollett’s Matthew Bramble and Laurence Sterne’s Uncle Toby exemplify the inherent high empathy and nervous sensitivities of sensibility. Understandings of sensibility were premised on physiologies of nerves and animal spirits. Accordingly, genitalia had immense influence over the sensible individual’s body and mind. While most literary works did not explicitly describe the effects of genitals, the sexual dilemmas and scenarios so common to this literary genre implied the influences of reproductive organs. Satires such as Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1767) or A Sentimental Journey (1768) pointedly exposed the sexual meanings and physiological concerns that had only tacitly referred to the known nervous qualities of genitals.

This research project touches on several historiographical issues. Histories of 18th-century generation are few but growing, with the Wellcome Trust- funded ‘Generation to Reproduction’ project at Cambridge one such example of current academic interest in this topic. Even fewer are studies on the physiological theories and anatomical display of genitalia in the 18th century, especially in the case of male genitalia. But a more theoretically significant aspect of my work is the combination of literary criticism with history of medicine. As George S Rousseau has noted, “Although literary scholars may probe medical texts from their influence on literature…they do not probe medical texts for the influence of literature; at least they have not as yet.” This one- sidedness diminishes the importance of literature to medicine. The cult of sensibility framed the attentions and interpretations of anatomists and physiologists as they examined and theorised about genitals, nerves and animal spirits. Even the Hunter– Monro priority dispute was stamped with literary culture, as Smollett used his rhetorical genius to defend his friend William Hunter. I hope that my research not only opens discussion on the eyebrow-raising history of 18th- century genitalia but also contributes to righting the imbalance highlighted by Rousseau some two decades ago.

Darren Wagner is a doctoral student at the Department of History, University of York.

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