Reptiles evolve internal fertilization, using a retractable penis.
100 million BCE
A proto-mammalian species evolves the foreskin, which becomes a genital feature in most mammals.
5 million BCE
Australopithecus (hominid ape): penis has foreskin
Homo sapiens: complete with foreskin
Modern humans: complete with foreskin
10,000 (?) BCE
Aboriginal tribes in central and desert regions of Australia introduce circumcision of boys as puberty rite
6000 (?) BCE
Circumcision (male and female) practised as puberty rite by tribes in north-eastern African and Arabian peninsula
Egypt invaded from the south, perhaps by African tribes bringing circumcision with them.
Egyptian bas-relief which may show some form of genital mutilation being performed. The relief is eroded and hard to interpret. More commonly seen as modern reconstruction. One interpretation is that it just shows the pubic hair being shaved. Contrary to some reports, no circumcised mummies have been found, but some statues show what may be a superincision (cutting a slit in the upper side of the foreskin, or dorsal slit).
First five books of Hebrew Bible (Torah) compiled, including Genesis with its reference to Yaweh’s command to Abraham to circumcise himself, his sons and his slaves and servants. Circumcision enforced by priests among Jewish people as sign of the Covenant.
Greek historians note prevalence of circumcision and other penile mutilations among the Arabs and other Middle Eastern tribes. Herodotus (485-420 BCE) observes and deplores circumcision among the Colchians, Ethiopians, Phoenicians, Syrians, and Macrones, as well as the Egyptian priestly caste. He criticises the fanatical ritual cleanliness of the Egyptian priests: "They [even] practice circumcision for the sake of cleanliness, considering it better to be clean than handsome" - a perverse sacrifice in Greek eyes. (The context is things Egyptians do that are the reverse of what other, more sensible, people do.) He reports that the salutary influence of Greek culture led the Phoenicians to abandon circumcision. (See Frederick Hodges, "The ideal prepuce", including excellent illustrations from Greek art and sculpture).
The Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-165 BCE) consolidates Alexander’s empire, and attempts to impose Greek civilization, including a ban on ritual circumcision. Some Jews seek foreskin restoration.
ANNO DOMINI or Christian Era
Jesus born and circumcised in accordance with Jewish practice.
Philo (c.15 BCE to c.50 CE), a Jewish philosopher in Alexandria, defends circumcision on the ground that it is a valuable curb on sexual indulgence:
"The legislators thought good to dock the organ which ministers to such intercourse, thus making circumcision the symbol of excision of excessive and superfluous pleasure."
Roman Emperor Hadrian (98-138 CE) extends a previous ban, by Emperors Domitian (81-96) and Nerva (96-98), on the castration of citizens or slaves throughout the Roman Empire, to include circumcision.
Mishnah (commentary on Torah) first written down. Gives details of Periah, or radical circumcision, involving tearing back the foreskin and ripping it from the glans, (not just cutting off the tip, as done previously.) Thought to be instituted then to prevent Jews who did not like being circumcised from stretching the remnants of their foreskin so as to cover up the glans and thus being able to pass as uncircumcised and take part in Greek athletic contests and other Graeco-Roman social life. Emperor Antoninus Pius lifts the legal prohibition on circumcision, but only for Jews, not their slaves, servants or other non-Jews (as prescribed by Genesis and Jewish law).
Galen (131-201) describes methods of foreskin restoration.
Emperor Constantine renews the ban on Jews circumcising non-Jews (such as their slaves, as was their practice).
The Digest of Justinian restates the ban of Constantine.
Christian church begins celebrating 1 January as the Feast of the Circumcision (of Christ).
Mohammed born "already circumcised" supposedly giving rise to the rule of circumcision among Moslems, the largest group of circumcised men in the world today. Further information.
Islamic armies overrun much of Middle East, central Asia, northern Africa and Spain. Indigenous cultures swamped and rule of circumcision enforced on local populations by Moslem conquerors. Some Christians excused because they are "people of the Book". Islam eventually reaches India, Malayan peninsular and Indonesian archipelago, bringing circumcision in its wake.
Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides, 1135-1204), Jewish physician, writes Guide for the perplexed, in which he explains that circumcision was test of faith, the main purpose of which was injure the penis and discourage sexual indulgence.
Polynesian voyagers reach Aotearoa (New Zealand) and abandon supercision. Maoris never practise circumcision or any other form of genital mutilation and regard foreskin as sacred.
Gabriele Falloppio (1523-62) describes function of the foreskin to provide lubrication and increase pleasure during sex.
William Harvey (1578-1657), the discoverer of the circulation of the blood, states that circumcised men have less pleasure in sex. Giovanni Sinibaldi identifies the clitoris as the functional equivalent of the foreskin and as each the main source of sexual pleasure for women and men respectively.
During English revolution some extreme Puritan sects turn back to Old Testament and decide that Christians are subject to Law of the Covenant. One woman is gaoled for circumcising little boys in obedience to this belief.
Aristotle’s Master-piece, a popular sex manual throughout the eighteenth century, states that the main source of male sexual pleasure arises from the friction of the foreskin moving back and forth over the glans.
Publication of Onania, or the heinous sin of self-pollution, and all its frightful consequences in both sexes in London, giving rise to the irrational phobia about masturbation which persisted throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and which still survives among members of the US Congress. For the next 250 years doctors insist it is a scientifically proven medical fact that masturbation is physically and mentally harmful and must be stopped at any cost.
Improvements in surgical technique allow amputation of diseased tissue from the penis in advanced cases of syphilis. Because syphilitic sores were often found on the foreskin, some physicians got the idea that circumcised men might be less vulnerable to infection.
Publication of Onanism, or a treatise on the disorders produced by masturbation, by Swiss physician Simon-Andre Tissot, further spreading the theory of masturbatory disease throughout Europe.
English surgeon John Hunter observes that the foreskin was necessary to provide the slack skin to accommodate the penis in its erect and enlarged state.
French physician Claude-Francois Lallemand introduces circumcision as treatment for masturbation in boys and "spermatorrhoea" (involuntary loss of semen) in men. Suggests widespread circumcision of young boys as preventive of masturbation. Ideas not taken up in Europe, but catch on in Britain and USA.
English physicians invent the idea that a tight and non-retractable foreskin in male babies is a congenital abnormality which ought to be corrected by surgery.
James Copland, in Dictionary of practical medicine, popularises the idea of circumcision as a means of discouraging masturbation among boys.
Jonathan Hutchinson, English physician, writes influential article, based on observations of a few Jewish and non-Jewish VD cases, that circumcised men are less likely to contract syphilis. Urges widespread circumcision in infancy. ("On the influence of circumcision in preventing syphilis", Medical Times and Gazette, NS Vol. II, 1 December 1855, pp. 542-3)
Clitoridectomy introduced as a treatment for hysteria, epilepsy, masturbation and other nervous diseases in women. On the relevance of this to male circumcision, see research by Ornella Moscucci
Athol Johnson practises and urges circumcision to cure masturbation in boys. ("On an injurious habit occasionally met with in infancy and early childhood", Lancet, 7 April 1860, pp. 344-5)
Circumcision as means of curing or preventing masturbation in boys becomes widespread medical dogma in Britain. For the next 100 years (and in the USA 150 years) doctors insist it is a scientifically proven medical fact that the foreskin is harmful to the physical and moral health males and must be surgically removed before they even become conscious that it was ever there.
William Acton, in the many editions of Functions and disorders of the reproductive organs, condemns foreskin as "source of serious mischief" because of its sensitivity and responsiveness to touch. Rejects emerging medical dogma that glans of penis is most sensitive part. Considers foreskin necessary to sexual performance in old age. Condemns masturbation and treats spermatorrhoea by cauterising urethra with silver nitrate.
British medical profession rejects and effectively bans clitoridectomy because it is an irreversible mutilation and often performed without informed consent.
In the USA Lewis A. Sayre applies theories of Lallemand and announces that circumcision cures "paralysis" (polio), epilepsy and masturbation, setting off the medical craze for "therapeutic" circumcision. Calls for universal circumcision of male infants.
George Beaney, Melbourne doctor, popularises the theories of Acton on the harmfulness of masturbation and urges curative and preventive circumcision.
Eugen Levit, a Jewish doctor in Vienna, publishes pamphlet urging Jews to abolish circumcision and replace it with non-injurious rite.
John Harvey Kellogg MD (1852-1943) publishes the first edition of Plain facts for old and young, in which he promotes circumcision as a cure for masturbation. He writes that the operation was to be performed "without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment."
Norman H. Chapman, Professor of Nervous and Mental Disease at the University of Kansas City, writes: "It is always good surgery to correct this deformity [a long and contracted foreskin] ... as a precautionary measure, even though no symptoms have as yet presented themselves", thus ushering in routine or "preventive" circumcision. (Medical News (Philadelphia) Vol. 41, p. 317)
Dr Samuel Newman of New York advocates the circumcision of newborn boys. One of the advantages he claimed was that it could be done without anaesthetic, and he borrowed the idea of strapping the baby to a board from the Indians. This became the modern circumstraint, still used in many hospitals to immobilise the baby while the doctor cuts off part of his penis.
The newly formed American Academy of Pediatrics supports Lewis Sayre’s call for routine neonatal circumcision. Determined to lower the nation’s infant mortality rate by reducing often-lethal diarrhoea, the AAP argues that the foreskin irritates the penis, which irritates the nervous system, which hampers digestion, which causes diarrhoea. Simultaneously, the AAP also condemns breast milk, claiming it is a leading cause of infant diarrhoea. This is the nineteenth century version of the urinary tract infection scare (UTI), the only surviving justification for infant circumcision.
Herbert Snow, a London doctor, publishes The barbarity of circumcision, in which he deplores the rapid spread of the practice. Jonathan Hutchinson publishes article "Circumcision as a preventive of masturbation", in which he regrets that public opinion would not allow the introduction of castration as well in severe cases.
Publication of P.C Remondino, History of circumcision from the earliest times to the present: Moral and physical reasons for its performance. Dr Remondino was one of the most ardent crusaders for universal infant circumcision before Terry Russell and Brian Morris, and just as scientific. His lengthy book on the subject, stressing moral as well as physical reasons, was a diatribe against the foreskin as a "moral outlaw", as well as a pathogenic feature of the male body which nature ought to have abolished. He claimed that the foreskin caused and circumcision could cure just about everything from syphilis and tuberculosis to night terrors and bed wetting.
Jonathan Hutchinson delivers widely reported lecture in which he urges universal male circumcision as a preventive of syphilis. ("The advantages of circumcision", Medical Review, Vol. 3, p. 641) E. Harding Freeland publishes article in which he claimed that universal male circumcision would reduce the incidence of syphilis by 49 per cent. (Lancet, 29 December, pp. 1869-71)
Richard Arthur, purity campaigner and later Minister for Health in New South Wales, urges parents to adopt circumcision as cure for and preventive of masturbation in boys. Australian newborn circumcision rate estimated at 25 per cent.
H.G.H . Naylor publishes "A plea for early circumcision" in Australasian Medical Gazette
Popular medical writer Philip Muskett urges circumcision in his widely read Illustrated Australian Medical Guide
Abraham Wolbarst, Jewish doctor in New York, urges universal male circumcision as a preventive of syphilis, cancer and masturbation. (Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 62, 1914, pp. 92-7)
Conference organised by Workers Educational Association of New South Wales recommends circumcision as preventive of syphilis and masturbation.
Most Australian baby and child care guides recommend routine circumcision. Some suggest circumcision of girls in cases of persistent masturbation, though this is rarely done. Photos of procedures.
Australian routine circumcision rate reaches 50 per cent
In the USA Dr Thomas Bolling Gay recommends routine infant circumcision to prevent phimosis and hence masturbation. (Journal of the American Medical Association, 21 July 1928)
Abraham Wolbarst claims that smegma causes and circumcision prevents cancer of the penis.
Hiram S. ("Inch") Yellen, MD (1894-1969) and Aaron A. Goldstein (1899-1945) invent the Gomco clamp,a particularly cruel device for separating boys from their foreskins.
Dr R.W. Cockshutt states that all boys should be circumcised as an incentive to chastity. (British Medical Journal, 1935 (2), p. 764)
Alan Guttmacher writes (approvingly) that some US doctors circumcise routinely without even consulting parents, and that 75 per cent of boys born in urban hospitals are circumcised. ("Should the baby be circumcised?", Parents Magazine, Vol. 16, pp. 26, 76-8)
Battle of Guadalcanal. Mass circumcision of US soldiers in the Pacific in response to "an outbreak of phimosis and paraphimosis"! Military circumcisers Eugene A. Hand and Abraham Ravich promote circumcision to the masses through medical and popular journals after the war.
Battle of El Alamein: allied offensive begins in Egypt. Some British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers are forcibly circumcised concurrently with widespread skin infections, giving rise to "sand under the foreskin" myth. Italian and German soldiers (all uncut) mysteriously unaffected by this problem.
British National Health Service set up, putting hospital doctors on salary and paying family doctors a flat rate per patient on their books. Circumcision not included in schedule of free procedures. Incidence of circumcision in Britain falls from about 35 per cent to less than 10 per cent.
Joseph Lewis publishes In the name of humanity, an eloquent condemnation of infant circumcision on rational and humanitarian grounds. You may be able to get a second hand copy from abebooks.
Douglas Gairdner publishes article "The fate of the foreskin", finally correcting the medical profession’s misunderstanding of infantile phimosis and showing that a phimotic condition is normal and healthy in infants and boys. (British Medical Journal, 24 December 1949, pp. 1433-7). Full text here.
US troops land in South Korea. Under subsequent US occupation and influence, South Korea adopts universal boyhood circumcision.
Australian routine circumcision rate peaks at 90 per cent.
National Women’s Hospital opens in Auckland, New Zealand, as a publicly-funded, foreskin-friendly zone. This leads to a dramatic fall in the rate of circumcision in NZ.
W.K.C. Morgan publishes "The rape of the phallus", the first criticism of circumcision’s murky psychology to appear in a US medical journal. Full text here.
Australian circumcision rate declines to 70 per cent. Total number of circumcised males reaches all-time peak of 60 per cent; proportion falls from now on.
Excessively severe circumcision (involving amputation of entire penis) of "John Thiessen" (Bruce, now David, Reimer) in Winnipeg leading to sex-reassignment surgery and failed attempt to bring him up as a girl.
In the USA Van Lewis and his brother Ben carry four signs saying "Infant Circumcision is a Sex Crime. Abolish it." "Sex Criminals for Hire? Inquire Within" "Abolish Infant Circumcision", "Men’s Liberation" and "QUIT" outside the Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, Tallahassee, Florida, and are arrested. They are charged with disturbing the peace and spend the day in gaol. Van Lewis was not intimidated and continues to fight for genital integrity: further details here.
American Academy of Pediatrics finds "no valid medical indications for routine infant circumcision."
The Australian Pediatric Association recommends that "newborn male infants should not, as a routine, be circumcised". (Medical Journal of Australia, 22 May 1971, p. 1148)
Australian circumcision rate declines to 50 per cent. Canadian Pediatric Society issues policy on circumcision and calls it an "obsolete" and "mutilitive" operation which should not be routinely performed. Full text here.
Australian College of Paediatrics issues statement on circumcision which states: "1. The ACP should continue to discourage the practice of circumcision in the newborn male infant."
Commonwealth Minister for Health (Neal Blewett) announces that Medicare will no longer pay for medically unnecessary circumcisions from taxpayers’ healthcare funds. Decision reversed after intervention by Prime Minister Hawke, bowing to pressure from Jewish and Moslem religious leaders.
In the USA nurse Marilyn Milos is fired for advising parents against circumcision and founds NOCIRC (the National Organisation of Circumcision Information Resource Centers).
Demands from circumcision advocates for mass circumcision as a means of controlling AIDS. At this time USA has highest proportion of circumcised men and highest incidence of AIDS cases in developed world. Further information.
California Medical Association declares circumcision "an effective public health measure" on a voice vote, at the instigation of long-time militant circumcision advocate, Aaron Fink.
United Nations adopts Convention on the Rights of the Child. Section 14 guarantees children their own freedom of belief and religion, and Section 24.3 requires signatories to "take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children", meaning circumcision among other cruel or harmful customs. Ratified by Australia, December 1990.
In the case of "Marion", an intellectually handicapped girl whom her guardian wished to sterilise, the High Court held that where a significant medical intervention was not needed for the immediate health of a minor, the permission of the Family Court was required.
More than 20 nurses at St Vincent Hospital, Santa Fe, New Mexico, refuse to assist with circumcisions.
Claim that uncircumcised men had significantly higher rate of cancer of the penis exposed as a myth, yet again.
Queensland Law Reform Commission suggests that circumcision of minors without consent is probably unlawful under the Queensland criminal code.
Important paper by Williams and Kapila on risks and complications of circumcision published in British Journal of Surgery. Full text here. Photos of typical but not so aesthetically pleasing circumcision outcomes are available here.
David Gollaher publishes landmark article on history of medically rationalised circumcision in Journal of Social History. Full text here.
Two of the nurses of St Vincent (see 1992), Mary Conant and Betty Katz Sperlich, found Nurses for the Rights of the Child.
Female circumcision (female genital mutilation, or FGM) banned by US federal government
R. Taylor’s paper on the prepuce as specialised mucosa of the penis published in the British Journal of Urology. It describes the uniquely dense innervation of the ridged bands of the foreskin. Full text here.
Canadian Paediatric Society, Foetus and Newborn Committee, issues new policy on circumcision in which it states that "circumcision of newborns should not be routinely performed." Full text of policy here.
The Australasian Association of Paediatric Surgeons states that it "does not support the routine circumcision of male neonates, infants or children in Australia. It is considered to be inappropriate and unnecessary as a routine to remove the prepuce". Australian College of Paediatrics waters down statement against circumcision in response to AIDS scare and religious pressure.
Fourth International Symposium on Sexual Mutilations, Lausanne, Switzerland, adopts the Ashley Montagu declaration and submits it to the World Court.
Paper by A. Taddio on circumcision pain shows that pain of circumcision heightens fear and pain of subsequent vaccination and other procedures. Further information on pain.
Paper by Edward O. Laumann et al on circumcision, sexual practice and STDs shows circumcision does not prevent STDs, and that higher STD rate correlates with more varied (stimulation-hungry?) sexual practices. Full text here.
Paper by J. Lander et al proves the pain of circumcision to be excruciating. Circumcision without anaesthetic was discontinued in the study for ethical reasons. Full text here.
Rolling Stone blows the whistle on Dr John Money’s attempt at surgical sex reassignment in the "John/Joan/John" case.
Egyptian High Court overturns a government attempt to ban female circumcision. The Islamic cleric who led traditional opposition to the ban not only thanked God for preserving a religious custom and requirement handed down by mothers and grandmothers for fourteen centuries, but stated that the operation protected the nation from AIDS by reducing promiscuity. (Los Angeles Times, 25 June)
Highly publicised death of baby Dustin Evans Jnr in Cleveland, Ohio, under anaesthetic during attempt to repair damage arising from circumcision complications. Doctors were at pains to distance his death from his circumcision.
Study of UTIs by To et al shows that it would take 195 circumcisions to prevent one UTI. You can see a graphic illustration of this figure.
In a standard textbook, leading paediatrician refers to circumcision as a mutilation: "it is fundamentally illogical that mutilating someone might be beneficial." (N.R.C. Roberton, "Care of the normal term newborn baby", in Janet M. Rennie, N.R.C. Roberton (eds) Textbook of neonatology (3rd edn, Edinburgh 1999), pp. 378-379.
The American Academy of Pediatrics issues new policy on routine male circumcision which states that the potential medical benefits of circumcision do not warrant performing it routinely, but that paediatricians may perform it at the parents’ behest for "cultural, religious, and ethnic" reasons, but that analgesia is essential. You can compare that policy with their policy on female genital mutilation.
Medina General Hospital, Ohio, settles with parents who had sued for $10,000,000. Their son had the tip of his penis amputated during a "routine" circumcision.
An English judge rules that a Muslim father may not have his son circumcised contrary to the mother’s wishes, even though they had originally agreed to raise the child as Muslim. The ruling is upheld in the Court of Appeal, which stated: "a newborn child does not share the conceptions of the parents" and "it [is] not in the best interests of the child to be circumcised, with its risk of pain and psychological damage which the boy would find hard to understand." Further information. Further information.
The Lancet publishes editorial by Halperin and Bailey calling for mass circumcision in Africa to prevent spread of HIV-AIDS. Media in USA interpret this as a call for mass circumcision everywhere. Halperin tells the Bay Area Reporter in San Francisco: "If I were a top [insertive partner in anal sex], and didn’t like to use condoms, I would consider getting circumcised" - contradicting his own advice in the editorial, leaving the false impression that circumcision conferred immunity against infection, and seeming ignorant that most American males are already circumcised. AIDS continues to spread in Africa even though more than half the adult male population there is also already foreskin-free.
In Perth, WA, Shane Peterson sues the doctor who circumcised him as an infant for disability, pain and suffering arising from the operation. In an out of court settlement the physician admitted liability and agreed to a payment of $A360,000. Further details
Australian circumcision rate stabilises at 12 per cent nationally – but higher in New South Wales and much higher in Queensland. Total number of circumcised males falls to 48 per cent.
Article by G. Boyle, J.S. Svoboda and C. Price, "Circumcision of healthy boys: Criminal assault?" published. Full text here.
Parents of Jacob Sweet, brain damaged after infection arising from circumcision in Anchorage, Alaska, settle medical malpractice suit against doctors after 13 years.
The American Medical Association issues a policy statement on circumcision, calling it "non-therapeutic" and recommending anaesthesia, but still endorsing the 1999 statement of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Further discussion.
Publication of The ethical canary by Margaret Somerville, including a chapter disputing the ethics of circumcising male babies. Full text here.
Sixth International Symposium on Genital Integrity in Sydney, Australia. Ken McGrath (from NZ) first describes the frenular delta.
William Stowell, aged 18, feeling pissed off, injured and ashamed of being cut, sues the doctor who circumcised him and the hospital where it was done. Further information.
Ontario Human Rights Commission reviews its policy on male circumcision, recognises the reality of harm, and moves its position closer to its policy on female genital mutilation.
The Association for Genital Integrity in Toronto applies for public funding under the government’s Court Challenges Program to file a court challenge to extend the Canadian Charter to include males in protection against genital mutilation. Application is refused. Further information.
Important article by K. Bonner argues that circumcision is not a "natural condom". Full text here.
Sweden passes a law setting rules for infant male circumcision, including mandatory use of anaesthetic. Jewish and Moslem organisations protest and threaten to take Swedish Government to the European Court of Human Rights.
Medicaid North Carolina ends public funding of routine circumcision.
Revival of old claim that male foreskin increases risk of cervical cancer in women makes headlines round the world. One of the researchers demands universal male circumcision. The shonky statistical manipulations and ethical bankruptcy of the researchers pass unnoticed by the media. Further information.
At Barcelona conference, World Health Organisation rejects circumcision as element of strategy in control of AIDS in Africa. Endorses continued reliance on proven methods of control, including sex education, promotion of human rights and gender quality, and provision of condoms. (See Stover J, Walker N, Garnet GP, et al, "Can we reverse the HIV/AIDS pandemic with an expanded response?" Lancet Vol. 360, 2002, pp. 73-77.)
Medicaid Arizona stops public funding of routine circumcision.
Medicaid Missouri stops public funding of routine circumcision.
Royal Australasian College of Physicians issues new statement on circumcision which states that there is "no medical indication for routine male circumcision" and "no evidence of benefit outweighing harm for circumcision as a routine procedure". The full statement is available on the RACP website. Further information available from Circumcision Information Australia.
Chairman of Danish Council of Medical Ethics calls for ban on circumcision of boys before the age of consent; he states that "no adult is entitled to carry out irreversible surgery on a child, unless it is for health reasons"; and that "prior to eighteen years of age, Danish children have a right to be protected from ritual interventions which can cause pain or permanent damage". Full text of article translated here.
Medical Journal of Australia publishes three important articles showing that too many circumcisions are being performed in Australia and that the foreskin plays an important role in sexual function. Full text of the articles