Deviance, Derangement, and De-generation

Surgical Enforcement for Victorian Gender Norms


  • Joanna Ellis


In 1865, prominent surgeon Isaac Baker Brown was elected President of the Medical Society of London for his achievements in the fledgling field of obstetrics and gynecology. Just two years later, the Obstetrical Society of London voted overwhelmingly to expel him from their ranks, and he died in poverty in 1873. Brown’s fall from grace stemmed from his controversial usage of clitoridectomy to cure cases of hysteria, epilepsy, and insanity. The Victorian clitoridectomy was rooted in that era’s concepts of gender roles and healthy expressions of female sexuality. Clitoridectomy and other gynecological treatments employed to relieve mental illnesses were also manifestations of obstetricians and gynecologists’ need to establish themselves as respectable professionals necessary to society. Ironically, the vulnerability of these new professions was also central to Brown’s expulsion and exile. Brown’s story and his theories and implementation of clitoridectomy serve as a lens to examine the interaction of gender roles and medical developments in Victorian Britain, specifically focusing on the advent of obstetrics and gynecology.