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Special Collections on NPO Radio 1

27 May 2021

On Sunday 23 May, Dutch public broadcaster VPRO featured the beautiful radio documentary Het Spoor Terug: De geschiedenis van het vrouwelijk orgasme [The Way Back: The History of the Female Orgasm] by Lotte van Gaalen. In the documentary, UG historian Dr Karen Hollewand, an expert on the history of sexuality in the early modern period (ca. 1450-1800), speaks from the Special Collections research room of the University Library.

1. Anatomy lesson, Jan Wandelaar, etching and engraving, 1725. Title page from: Andreas Vesalius, Opera Omnia anatomica & chirurgica, 1725. Central to the classicist, anatomical theater is the lifeless body of a criminal, executed woman that is examined by countless male doctors. Vesalius stands to the left of the woman and dissects her body.
1. Anatomy lesson, Jan Wandelaar, etching and engraving, 1725. Title page from: Andreas Vesalius, Opera Omnia anatomica & chirurgica, 1725. Central to the classicist, anatomical theater is the lifeless body of a criminal, executed woman that is examined by countless male doctors. Vesalius stands to the left of the woman and dissects her body.

In her documentary, Lotte van Gaalen wonders why knowledge of female anatomy has remained vague and incorrect for so long. She uncovers a tangle of incredible myths and misunderstandings about the female body that have left their traces to this day.

2. Anatomical representation of the vascular system in a woman’s torso, Jan Wandelaar, etching and engraving, 1725. From: Andreas Vesalius, Opera Omnia anatomica & chirurgica, 1725. Vesalius had little interest in female sexuality. He did not have detailed illustrations of the female reproductive organs included in his atlas.
2. Anatomical representation of the vascular system in a woman’s torso, Jan Wandelaar, etching and engraving, 1725. From: Andreas Vesalius, Opera Omnia anatomica & chirurgica, 1725. Vesalius had little interest in female sexuality. He did not have detailed illustrations of the female reproductive organs included in his atlas.

Using four beautiful 16th and 17th-century books* from the Special Collections department of the University of Groningen Library, Karen Hollewand argues that the history of female anatomy and sexuality is primarily a male history. It was the white, Western male surgeon and doctor who studied and wrote about the female body. Doctors did not ask women about their own knowledge and experience of their bodies, as they considered this to be completely unscientific. In the male view, the female body was considered abnormal, imperfect and even dangerous for centuries.

3. Title page, P. Pinchard, line engraving. From: Reinier de Graaf, Opera Omnia, 1678.
3. Title page, P. Pinchard, line engraving. From: Reinier de Graaf, Opera Omnia, 1678.

The books, and especially Reinier de Graaf’s Opera Omnia, show that a lot of knowledge about the female body was acquired centuries ago. But even among physicians, these discoveries, like the full shape of the clitoris, kept disappearing from view due to the dominant sexual morals. This process of rediscovery and publication persisted until the 21st century.

4. Anatomical representation of the female genitalia, Hendrik Bary, engraving. From: Reinier de Graaf, Opera Omnia, 1678.
4. Anatomical representation of the female genitalia, Hendrik Bary, engraving. From: Reinier de Graaf, Opera Omnia, 1678.

The documentary also features Jelto Drenth from Groningen. After studying medicine at the UG, Jelto Drenth spent his entire career as a sexologist at the Rutgers knowledge centre and he wrote the standard work The Origin of the World: Science and Fiction of the Vagina (2001, subsequently revised editions; translated into nine languages) and De man is geen jager: mannelijkheid, seks en angst (2016).

Anatomical representation of (I-IV) clitoris, urethra, vagina and uterus, Hendrik Bary, engraving. From: Reinier de Graaf, Opera Omnia, 1678. Unlike Vesalius, Reinier de Graaf paid a lot of attention to the female reproductive organs and sexuality, as illustrated by the prints in his book.
Anatomical representation of (I-IV) clitoris, urethra, vagina and uterus, Hendrik Bary, engraving. From: Reinier de Graaf, Opera Omnia, 1678. Unlike Vesalius, Reinier de Graaf paid a lot of attention to the female reproductive organs and sexuality, as illustrated by the prints in his book.

The documentary was part of the weekly VPRO history programme OVT (Onvoltooid Verleden Tijd) on NPO Radio 1:

*Karen Hollewand discusses the following books from the Special Collections in the documentary:

  • Andreas Vesalius, Opera Omnia anatomica & chirurgica, 1725, part 1, LD--- 4. All the works that Vesalius wrote about surgery are collected in this book. Vesalius (1514-1564), a doctor and anatomist from the south of the Netherlands, was one of the founders of anatomy.
  • Realdo Colombo, De re anatomica, libri XV, 1572, UKLU KF 40. Colombo (1516-1559) was a surgeon and professor of anatomy at the University of Padua and is considered by some to be a disciple of Vesalius.
  • Reinier de Graaf: Opera Omnia, 1678, KW A 1649. De Graaf (1641-1673), a doctor and anatomist from the north of the Netherlands, was one of the pioneers of reproductive medicine.
  • Reinier de Graaf: Alle de wercken, so in de ontleed-kunde, als andere deelen der medicyne, 1686, KW A 1655.
Last modified:04 June 2021 09.36 a.m.
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