Skip to ContentSkip to Navigation
University of Groningen Library
University of Groningen Library

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:05 January 2022 1.00 p.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

More news

  • 11 December 2023

    Join the 'Language and AI' community

    As a part of the Jantina Tammes School, the 'Language and AI' theme is an interdisciplinary initiative that aims to encourage collaboration among academics, PhD candidates, students, and industry representatives who share a keen interest in the...

  • 13 October 2023

    Moniek Tromp appointed Captain of Science of the Top Sector Chemistry

    Prof. Moniek Tromp has been appointed Captain of Science of the Chemistry Top Sector by the Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy. As from 1 July 2023, she succeeded Prof. Bert Weckhuysen from Utrecht University.

  • 12 September 2023

    Art in times of AI

    Leonardo Arriagada Beltran conducted his PhD research on the interface of computer-generated art and the constantly evolving field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). He will defend his Phd thesis on 21 September. His research offers valuable insights...