history of sexuality

Aristotle in the Sex Shop and Activism in the Academy: Notes from the Joint Atlantic Seminar in the History of Medicine

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

Four enormous, dead doctors were present at the opening of the 2017 Joint Atlantic Seminar in the History of Medicine. Convened in Johns Hopkins University’s Welch Medical Library, the room was dominated by a canvas of mammoth proportions, a group portrait by John Singer Sargent of the four founders of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Dr. William Welch, known in his lifetime as “the dean of American medicine” (and the library’s namesake). Dr. William Halsted, “the father of modern surgery.” Dr. Sir William Osler, “the father of modern medicine.” And Dr. Howard Kelly, who established the modern field of gynecology.

1905 Professors Welch, Halsted, Osler and Kelly (aka The Four Doctors) oil on canvas 298.6 x 213.3 cm Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore MD

John Singer Sargent, Professors Welch, Halsted, Osler, and Kelly (1905)

Beneath the gazes of this august quartet, graduate students and faculty from across the United States and the United Kingdom gathered for the fifteenth iteration of the Seminar. This year, the program’s theme was “Truth, Power, and Objectivity,” explored in thirteen papers ranging from medical testimony before the Goan Inquisition to the mental impact of First World War bombing raids, from Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Health Week to the emergence of Chinese traditional medicine. It would not do justice to the papers or their authors to cover them all in a post; instead I shall concentrate on the two opening sessions: the keynote lecture by Mary E. Fissell and a faculty panel with Nathaniel Comfort, Gianna Pomata, and Graham Mooney (all of Johns Hopkins University).

I confess to some surprise at the title of Fissell’s talk, “Aristotle’s Masterpiece and the Re-Making of Kinship, 1820–1860.” Fissell is known as an early modernist, her major publications exploring gender, reproduction, and medicine in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England. Her current project, however, is a cultural history of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, a book on sexuality and childbirth first published in 1684 and still being sold in London sex shops in the 1930s. The Masterpiece was distinguished by its discussion of the sexual act itself, and its consideration (and copious illustrations) of so-called “monstrous births.” It was, in Fissell’s words, a “howling success,” seeing an average of one edition a year for 250 years, on both sides of the Atlantic.

It should be explained that there is very little Aristotle in Aristotle’s Masterpiece. In early modern Europe, the Greek philosopher was regarded as the classical authority on childbirth and sex, and so offered a suitably distinguished peg on which to hang the text. This allowed for a neat trick of bibliography: when the Masterpiece was bound together with other (spurious) works, like Aristotle’s Problems, the spine might be stamped with the innocuous (indeed impressive) title “Aristotle’s Works.”


El Greco, John the Baptist (c.1600)

At the heart of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, Fissell argued, was genealogy: how reproduction—“generation,” in early modern terms—occurred and how the traits of parents related to those of their offspring. This genealogy is unstable, the transmission of traits open to influences of all kinds, notably the “maternal imagination.” The birth of a baby covered in hair, for example, could be explained by the pregnant mother’s devotion to an image of John the Baptist clad in skins. Fissell brilliantly drew out the subversive possibilities of the Masterpiece, as when it “advised” women that adultery might be hidden by imagining one’s husband during the sex act, thus ensuring that the child would look like him. Central though family resemblance is to reproduction, it is “a vexed sign,” with “several jokers in every deck,” because women’s bodies are mysterious and have the power to disrupt lineage.

Fissell principally considered the Masterpiece’s fortunes in the mid-nineteenth-century Anglophone world, as the unstable generation it depicted clashed with contemporary assumptions about heredity. Here she framed her efforts as a “footnote” to Charles Rosenberg’s seminal essay, “The Bitter Fruit: Heredity, Disease, and Social Thought in Nineteenth-Century America,” which traced how discourses of heredity pervaded all branches of science and medicine in this period. George Combe’s Constitution of Man (1828), an exposition of the supposedly rigid natural laws governing heredity (with a tilt toward self-discipline and self-improvement), was the fourth-bestselling book of the period (after the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Robinson Crusoe). Other hereditarian works sketched out the gendered roles of reproduction—what children inherited from their mothers versus from their fathers—and the possibilities for human action (proper parenting, self-control) for modulating genealogy. Wildly popular manuals for courtship and marriage advised young people on the formation of proper unions and the production of healthy children, in terms shot through with racial and class prejudices (though not yet solidified into eugenics as we understand that term).

The fluidity of generation depicted in Aristotle’s Masterpiece became conspicuous against the background of this growing obsession with a law-like heredity. Take the birth of a black child to white parents. The Masterpiece explains that the mother was looking at a painting of a black man at the moment of conception; hereditarian thought identified a black ancestor some five generations back, the telltale trait slowly but inevitably revealing itself. Thus, although the text of the Masterpiece did not change much over its long career, its profile changed dramatically, because of the shifting bibliographic contexts in which it moved.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the contrasting worldviews of the Masterpiece and the marriage manuals spoke to the forms of familial life prevalent at different social strata. The more chaotic picture of the Masterpiece reflected the daily life of the working class, characterized by “contingent formations,” children born out of wedlock, wife sales, abandonment, and other kinds of “marital nonconformity.” The marriage manuals addressed themselves to upper-middle-class families, but did so in a distinctly aspirational mode. They warned, for example, against marrying cousins, precisely at a moment when well-to-do families were “kinship hot,” in David Warren Sabean’s words, favoring serial intermarriage among a few allied clans. This was a period, Fissell explained, in which “who and what counted as family was much more complex” and “contested.” The ambiguity—and power—of this issue manifested in almost every sphere, from the shifting guidelines for census-takers on how a “family” was defined, to novels centered on complex kinship networks, such as John Lang’s Will He Marry Her? (1858), to the flood of polemical literature surrounding a proposed law forbidding a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister—a debate involving many more people than could possibly have been affected by the legislation.

After a rich question-and-answer session, we shifted to the faculty panel, with Professors Comfort, Pomata, and Mooney asked to reflect on the theme of “Truth, Power, and Objectivity.” Comfort, a scholar of modern biology, began by discussing his work with oral histories—“creating a primary source as you go, and in most branches of history that’s considered cheating.” Here perfect objectivity is not necessarily helpful: “when you make yourself emotional availability to your subjects […] you can actually gain their trust in a way that you can’t otherwise.” Equally, Comfort encouraged the embrace of sources’ unreliability, suggesting that unreliability might itself be a source—the more unreliable a narrative is, the more interesting and the more indicative of something meant it becomes. He closed with the observation that different audiences required different approaches to history and to history-writing—it is not simply a question of tone or language, but of what kind of bond the scholar seeks to form.

Professor Pomata, a scholar of early modern medicine, insisted that moments of personal contact between scholar and subject were not the exclusive preserve of the modern historian: the same connections are possible, if in a more mediated fashion, for those working on earlier periods. In this interaction, respect is of the utmost importance. Pomata quoted a line from W. B. Yeats’s “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

As a historian of public health—which he characterized as an activist discipline—Mooney declared, “I’m not really interested in objectivity. […] I’m angry about what I see.” He spoke compellingly about the vital importance of that emotion, properly channeled toward productive ends. The historian possesses power: not simply as the person setting the terms of inquiry, but as a member of privileged institutions. In consequence, he called on scholars to undermine their own power, to make themselves uncomfortable.

The panel was intended to be open-ended and interactive, so these brief remarks quickly segued into questions from the floor. Asked about the relationship between scholarship and activism, Mooney insisted that passion, even anger, are essential, because they drive the scholar into the places where activism is needed—and cautioned that it is ultimately impossible to be the dispassionate observer we (think we) wish to be. With beautiful understatement, Pomata explained that she went to college in 1968, when “a lot was happening in the world.” Consequently, she conceived of scholarship as having to have some political meaning. Working on women’s history in the early 1970s, “just to do the scholarship was an activist task.” Privileging “honesty” over “objectivity,” she insisted that “scholarship—honest scholarship—and activism go together.” Comfort echoed much of this favorable account of activism, but noted that some venues are more appropriate for activism than others, and that there are different ways of being an activist.

Dealing with the horrific—eugenics was the example offered—requires, Mooney argued, both the rigor of a critical method and sensitive emotional work. Further, all three panelists emphasized crafting, and speaking in, one’s own voice, eschewing the temptation to imitate more prominent scholars and embracing the first person (and the subjectivity it marks). Voice, Comfort noted, isn’t natural, but something honed, and both he and Pomata recommended literature as an essential tool in this regard.

Throughout, the three panelists concurred in urging collaborative, interdisciplinary work, founded upon respect for other knowledges and humility—which, Comfort insightfully observed, is born of confidence in one’s own abilities. Asking the right questions is crucial, the key to unlocking the stories of the oppressed and marginalized within sources created by those in power. Visual sources have the potential to express things inexpressible in words—Comfort cited a photograph that wonderfully captured the shy, retiring nature of Dr. Barton Childs—but must be used, not mere illustrations. The question about visual sources was the last of the evening, and Professor Pomata had the last word. Her final comment offers the perfect summation of the creativity, dedication, and intellectual ferment on display in Baltimore that weekend: “we are artists, don’t forget that.”

Mai-mai Sze and Irene Sharaff in Public and in Private

by contributing editor Erin Schreiner

I’ve written about Mai-mai Sze on this blog three times, and in those pieces I have focused on her life as a reader and writer. I am neither a historian nor a biographer by training – I’m a librarian – but I think that I must acknowledge a responsibility to Sze as her amateur biographer because I have written most about her. Up to now I have felt no real urgency to discuss Sze’s life-long partnership with Irene Sharaff. While neither makes mention of their relationship in the work for which they are known, glimpses of their private life together survive in the fragments of correspondence that remain in the archives and the memories of those who knew them. Although we can ignore the fact that Sharaff and Sze had a same-sex relationship when considering their work, exploring how they might have shaped each other’s lives and legacies adds depth and nuance to the story of how they made it.

From the mid-1930s until her death, Mai-mai Sze and the costume designer Irene Sharaff were a devoted couple; every person I’ve interviewed about Sze has used that word to describe the relationship. They lived together in New York in an apartment on 66th Street, and Sze always accompanied Sharaff to filming locations in Hollywood and all over the world. We find evidence of this in Sze’s correspondence, and even in her reading. Many books survive with loose sheets of notes written on stationery from the Beverly Hills Hotel, and her surviving correspondence often describes her travels with Sharaff. Sharaff’s letters make frequent mentions Sze, and they often signed letters to friends together. Jeannette Sanger, the owner of the now-closed Books & Co., described how the couple always appeared together not only at the store but also at literary parties. They were inseparable and their love and admiration for one another was apparent to everyone who knew them. Despite the fact that they were well-known as a couple, however, neither makes any mention of the other in their published work. Both Sze and Sharaff published autobiographies: Sze’s covers her childhood, and Sharaff exclusively writes on her work as a designer. Neither mentions the other anywhere in the texts. In both women, we find an intense separation between the person they presented to the public, and private life they lived together.


Irene Sharaff, 1910-1993

While we cannot confidently use the word lesbian to describe either the women themselves or their relationship because we just don’t know if either identified as such, I think that the Sharaff-Sze story can be read as lesbian history, and that ways of looking at lesbian life can shed light on both women’s lives as individuals. Sharaff and Sze’s relationship exhibits many of the “subliminal signs that we read as lesbian” described by Frances Doughty in her article, “Lesbian Biography, Biography by Lesbians.” They were “intimate woman companions who … shared housing and daily life;” both were engaged in “a self-defined work that is a central theme in the subject’s life” (Sharaff’s work in film and theater in New York and Hollywood, which have historic connections to LGBT communities, deserves mention here); Sze maintained an “active interest in and struggles on behalf of other oppressed or deviant groups;” and the couple had friendships with gay men, most notably Leo Lerman and Gray Foy. (Doughty, 78) Their relationship also fits Lillian Faderman’s definition of lesbian relationships, as both private records and anecdotes of those who knew them firmly establish that their “strongest emotions and affections [were] directed toward each other.”

Lerman Correspondence.jpg

Letter from Sharaff and Sze to Leo Lerman and Gray Foy, January 1, 1990 (author’s photo; Leo Lerman Papers; Box 19; courtesy of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library)

Examining their lives within the context of lesbian history, we can begin to understand why Sharaff and Sze’s private selves are so different from their public selves. Both women came of age in the late 1920s and ’30s, times that saw a major shift in the perception of lesbianism in America. While the ’20s were a time of greater sexual freedom across the general population because of the mainstream acceptance of Freudian psychology, it was also the first time that lesbianism was described as a disease. In the 1930s, the idea of homosexuality as an illness was broadly accepted across the medical community and also in some areas of popular culture, like pulp fiction and the theater. Times continued to change, and throughout their lives these women witnessed seismic shifts in perceptions of homosexuality.


Mai-mai Sze (1909-1992), c. 1940 by George Hoyningen-Huene

Throughout most of their adult lives and particularly at a time when both women were taking a firmer foothold in their careers in the 1950s, any public admission of their private relationship – however they would have defined it – may have had a harmful effect on their success. It seems reasonable to suggest that the McCarthy era witch-hunts for homosexuals in the 1950s would have worried them, particularly because so many of Sharaff’s colleagues were targeted in Hollywood. Whether or not they wanted to live publicly as a loving couple, obscuring the details of their relationship may have been one way of ensuring that they achieved their personal goals.

In their private lives, however, Sharaff and Sze’s relationship facilitated the achievements which defined their public personas. Throughout much of the twentieth century, women chose same-sex relationships for many reasons, one of which was the freedom that their choice allowed them. By rejecting the traditionally female roles of wife and mother, women like Mai-mai Sze and Irene Sharaff gave themselves the time, and the emotional and intellectual support they needed to reach a level of professional success that would have been unthinkable for most straight women of their generation. Sharaff and Sze’s shared life and their devotion to one another gave them the freedom to pursue their self-defined creative, intellectual, and professional goals.

In their public selves, Sharaff and Sze did not enjoy the same level of success, despite the fact both were equally devoted to the work they chose for themselves. Sharaff was a hugely successful costume designer who was nominated for eleven Academy and nine Tony Awards, five of which she won. A feminist reading of this situation would suggest that nature of her public successes allowed Sharaff to embody male values of achievement in her career, and she was rewarded by the male-dominated entertainment business. As I’ve previously written, Mai-mai Sze appears to have been so devastated by James Cahill and Nelson Wu’s rejection of her first published book that she spent the rest of her life trying to rebuild her confidence as a thinker and translator, and never published another word. In contrast to Sharaff, a white woman whose a profession as a costume designer was judged as suitable for her gender,  Sze was thwarted in her scholastic career. It is in her heavily annotated books, however, that we see that she never stopped working. Sze the reader remained dedicated to study and scholarship until her death.


The Music and Meditation Pavilion at Lucy Cavendish College, built following a donation by Sharaff and Sze. The two never visited Lucy Cavendish, but their ashes rest under two halves of the same rock beside the Pavilion’s entrance.

Irene Sharaff lived for only eleven months after Mai-mai Sze died in 1992, but in that time she saw to the deposit of her partner’s books at the Society Library.  The gift can be read as Sze’s final presentation of her public self, and Sharaff’s part in it beautifully illustrates how she supported Sze’s vision of it. There’s no doubt that we must continue to look carefully at the work these wanted to be remembered for, and in recognizing that work, we can also honor private ways that Sharaff and Sze helped one another to live, doing the work they loved together.

Many thanks to Elizabeth Ott, whose criticism greatly improved this piece.

Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading in the Archive (I)

by Emily Rutherford

It seems no wonder, then, that paranoia, once the topic is broached in a nondiagnostic context, seems to grow like a crystal in a hypersaturated solution, blotting out any sense of the possibility of alternative ways of understanding or things to understand. (Eve Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” in Touching Feeling, 131)

When I travelled to Cambridge at the start of this summer, there were three things I knew about Oscar Browning’s personal papers: 1. like the personal papers of many former fellows, they were in the archives of King’s College; 2. there were a lot of them, mostly correspondence; 3. midway through his professional career, Browning had been dismissed from his teaching job at Eton College under suspicious circumstances.

A caricature of Oscar Browning from Vanity Fair, 1888 (Wikimedia Commons)

A caricature of Oscar Browning from Vanity Fair, 1888 (Wikimedia Commons)

Browning, as his ODNB heading informs us, lived from 1837 to 1923 and was a “teacher and historian.” He spent his life caught in the Eton-King’s revolving door (until 1861, only Old Etonians could become members of King’s): educated at both institutions, he washed up at King’s after he lost his job at Eton. He wrote popular accounts of political and military history, helped to found the modern history course at Cambridge, and particularly devoted himself to the cause of teacher-training. His career could not be said to be successful—he was more of a comic stock character—but I was drawn to him for what he might tell me about the world of elite education in the late nineteenth century: his archive includes letters from hundreds of correspondents, many of whom taught in schools and universities, some of whom were prominent in public life, and some of whom were schoolboys, trainee teachers, and other more anonymous figures on whom I would be unlikely to land in a less focused trawl through the archives of an educational institution.

But when you have three weeks to get through tens of thousands of documents, you make certain choices that influence your reading practices, and there I was led astray. The finding aid lists series of letters in alphabetical order by correspondent, with other miscellaneous papers coming at the end. I went through in order, making a note of familiar names: headmasters, future politicians who had been Browning’s students at Eton, Cambridge dons—and prominent figures in the history of homosexuality, such as George Ives, G.L. Dickinson, Robbie Ross, J.A. Symonds, and Oscar Wilde. Thanks to the gossipy tone of Ian Anstruther’s biography of Browning, as well as other sources that assume Browning’s homosexuality, I was primed for scandals and secrets. In my head, I placed ironic scare quotes around the finding aid’s identification of certain young male correspondents as “protégé” or “secretary.” I started calling up letters that had nothing to do with education reform and everything to do with homosexuality, hoping that they might show that Browning had let slip a confidence confirming his sexuality or shedding light on his dismissal from Eton.

Spoiler alert: dear reader, this is exactly not how you should read the archive of someone who lived in the nineteenth century. In her essay on “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” Eve Sedgwick criticizes a “hermeneutics of suspicion”: a Freudian diagnostic mechanism as applied to texts, an analytic frame that fixates above all else on sexual difference. Following Freud and then Foucault, historians of nineteenth-century sexuality have often worked in this vein, seeking to uncover the homosexuality or other forms of deviance lurking under the covers of Victorian propriety. Particularly in the literature on education, they have been joined in their suspicions by school chronicles and biographies written by old boys, the sorts of books that are able to rely on uncited but intimate background knowledge and that allude to gossip with winks and nudges. It’s no surprise, then, that I fell unwittingly into a suspicious approach when I entered the world of Oscar Browning’s archive. But while some pioneers (such as Symonds or Wilde) eventually made sense of their desire for men by making it part of a countercultural identity, so many other men’s intense same-sex friendships, or their unfulfilled longing for the beauty of youth they saw all round them in their teaching jobs, was part and parcel of an elite culture that enjoyed powerful official sanction as the forge of imperial masculinity. Which category applied to Browning, if either? The answer wasn’t as conclusive or as interesting as I had expected, and I ultimately came to understand that I was misreading everything.


The first clue that I was doing it wrong appeared five days in, when it started to dawn on me that none of the men whom I expected would talk to Browning about homosexuality were doing so. Browning was around the same age and moved in the same social circle as John Addington Symonds, who had been writing and talking with his friends about what it meant to be a man who desired men since the mid-1860s, before the word “homosexual” existed. But Browning’s archive doesn’t suggest him to have had the same self-consciousness or sense of membership in a group of men united around a label such as “Uranian” that generated dialogue in other correspondence I’ve encountered. Even if this kind of commonality might have helped to initiate his friendship with men such as G.L. Dickinson, George Ives, or Robbie Ross, it didn’t sustain it. With his old Eton tutor William Johnson, about whose erotic interest in students the record is not so ambiguous, Browning discusses pedagogy and the academic abilities of pupils. With Dickinson, a colleague at King’s, Browning discusses reforms to the Modern History Tripos and college politics. Ives was one of the most visible activists for queer men’s rights in England in the first half of the twentieth century, but his letters discuss cricket and give Browning fashion advice, which only the most suspicious reader could regard as some kind of clue. A certain Hellenic homoeroticism preoccupied many men who were passionately devoted to single-sex educational institutions: even my research subject Arthur Sidgwick, who grew up to record in his diary a passionate relationship with his wife, spoke as a young man in an idiom that praised “beautiful boys”: all his friends were doing it. But Browning’s papers never quite go there. Oscar Wilde’s correspondence with him is about whether he will write an essay on “the women benefactors of Cambridge” for Woman’s World. When Symonds writes to Browning, as he did to many men, asking for data about the place of “sexual inversion” in Britain that he can use in a new research project, he asks Browning whether he thinks studying the Greek and Latin classics in school inclines boys towards homoeroticism, and whether there is any link between school dormitories, masturbation, and homosexual tendencies. He’s asking Browning’s opinion as a professional educator, who was once a housemaster at the country’s most famous public school—not necessarily as a homosexual himself. Folder after folder of letters caused me to reevaluate the picture of Browning as a flamboyant, effeminate queer man offered by the secondary literature, seeing the gossipy insinuation in works such as Anstruther’s biography as homophobic stereotyping rather than honest uncovering.

The mechanism of paranoia explains how, when there is a gap in a particular narrative, our imaginations will rush to fill it with such intensity as to overwhelm the information we actually have to work with—perhaps especially when it comes to repressed homosexuality, which Freud associated with paranoia. Browning’s archive, which contains over 10,000 letters, gives the illusion of completion because it is so vast. But stop to think, and you realize that most runs of letters from a given correspondent—even those Browning knew since childhood—begin in 1875 or ’76. 1875 was the year that Browning was fired from Eton and had to start his life anew, suggesting a bonfire of paper at some stage: perhaps a perfectly innocent one, meant to clear up waste when Browning closed up his Eton house and moved into smaller quarters in King’s College, Cambridge; perhaps one specifically designed to hide secrets that could cloud Browning’s righteous outrage at having been unfairly sacked. Our brains don’t like gaps: simple optical-illusion tricks show that when we are shown half of a familiar type of image such as a human face, our brains will automatically fill in the other half. Our paranoid minds rush, perhaps, to ascribe the interpretation that would offer conclusive proof of repressed homosexuality, instead of the more mundane one. The thing is, there are plenty of examples of both situations among men in Browning’s milieu. It’s Schroedinger’s archive: both are equally possible.

Throughout the entire vast archive, too, we only have one side of the story: aside from copies of a few letters, Browning’s voice itself doesn’t come through. We have teenage boys who thank him for lavish presents; we have Symonds’ requests for data; we have Robbie Ross’s appeals to a fund in support of Wilde and his family during Wilde’s imprisonment. But we don’t know what Browning might have said, if anything, to suggest that he was receptive to such letters. Perhaps, if such conversations ever existed, Browning would have been too nervous to put them in writing. My status as a professional researcher allows me access to archives; my knowledge of foreign languages dead and living allows me to read documents whose creators originally tried to hide them from the eyes of anyone not an elite man. But I’ll never know what, if anything, was said behind closed doors, perhaps with the aid of Browning’s prodigious personal wine cellar, when like-minded men could be fully frank with one another.

Still, as Brooke Palmieri has wisely reminded us, all archives are constructs that are necessarily subjective and incomplete: how, then, can we work with what we have? Next week, in part two of this essay, I will suggest that we might start by asking different questions.