Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The case of Mlle Marie-Madeleine Lafort Wednesday Archive #05

Amonst the many strange and wonderful dossiers gathered by Johann Dieter Wassmann is an extensive file he kept on the case of Mlle Marie-Madeleine Lafort, a French hermaphrodite whose physical peculiarities were widely studied and published in the mid-19th century (pictured at left in an 1872 engraving by L. Chapon from the collection of The Wassmann Foundation, Washington, D.C.) Johann's fascination was less voyeuristic than it might at first appear. In the 1890s he became intrigued with the growing debate concerning sexual identity and the determinants that come into play in making us male or female. The case of Mlle Lafort brought into doubt many of society's preconceived notions in this realm.

The term hermaphrodite has its origins in Greek mythology, named after the son of Hermes and Aphrodite who became joined in one body with the nymph Salmacis. Now known as intersex, this condition of ambiguous genitalia is far more common than is generally assumed, with even the most conservative estimates putting the incidence at 1 in 4500 births. Until the 20th century, the condition was left as is, with parents free to raise the child as they saw fit, but with the rise of modern medicine the fate of the child to become a boy or a girl was most often determined surgically by doctors shortly after birth. For a more enlightened view on the condition and how best to consider the needs of the child, here's a link to Elizabeth Weil's recent piece "What if It’s (Sort of) a Boy and (Sort of) a Girl?" in The New York Times Magazine.

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