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Book and Media Reviews
November 15, 2006

Sex Hormones, History

Author Affiliations

Book and Media Reviews Section Editor: Harriet S. Meyer, MD, Contributing Editor, JAMA.

JAMA. 2006;296(19):2379-2384. doi:10.1001/jama.296.19.2379-b

In The Most Secret Quintessence of Life, Chandak Sengoopta, senior lecturer in the history of medicine and science at Birkbeck College, University of London, focuses his historical lens on the timeless questions of sex, sexuality, gender, and aging. Sengoopta examines the central role of glands and hormones in biomedical explanations for what he refers to as “the sexual body,” shorthand for the wide and dynamic range of sexual characteristics: anatomy, behavior, appearance, function and dysfunction, development, and decline. He explores “why, how, and where theories of gonadal function were elaborated and used” by researchers and clinicians between 1850 and 1950. In today's world, in which women debate the use of estrogen, men debate the use of Viagra, and the US Congress debates issues of masculinity (steroids in baseball) and sexuality (gay marriage), this book provides a welcome and necessary perspective on the historical and cultural contingency of medical and popular understandings of endocrine physiology.

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