Julie De Ganck | The Politics of Monstrosity. Hans de Winiwarter and intersexuality in Early Twentieth Century


As pioneer of cytogenetic with his work on the mechanism of meiosis and determination of sex in mammals, the doctor and zoologist of Viennese background Hans de Winiwarter (1875-1949) figures in the Pantheon of “men of science” of Belgium. In spite of the historical importance of the character, biographies are most often satisfied to point out his discoveries in the field of embryology and genetics without referring to his other activities. In the same way, his social position of man and member of the Austrian aristocracy is generally reported on a purely informative basis without being integrated into the analysis of his works.
However, Hans de Winiwarter was not only a "laboratory man". He practised gynaecology and was professor in Liege where he taught disciplines as various as histology, embryology, zoology in its links with anthropology, as well as history of Japanese art. Like the richness of his course, his writings on hermaphroditism remained ignored up to now, whereas they enlighten the gendered nature of his work in the field of biology of reproduction. Hermaphroditism must be understood here in the cultural and scientist meaning of that time. In the Western cultural tradition, hermaphroditism indicates a mixture of sexual attributes preventing an observer from spontaneously classifying a person in one of the two categories of gender. This term was used in medicine and natural sciences to describe alive beings having two sexes or, in humans, people presenting mixed organs of generation. Stories of human hermaphrodites were more and more discredited since the eighteenth century and regarded as "marvellous": behind misleading appearances a "true sex" would hide that modern science should flush out and explain. Although modern medicine distinguished itself from beliefs and prejudices to become scientific, medical texts continued to exploit the monstrous and mythical nature of the theme of hermaphroditism. Then, medical articles were used to defend and represent the political ideas of authors, providing them simultaneously the objective “cover” of science. In the case of speeches on hermaphroditism, this "cover" was used to stigmatize social practices crossing standards of gender by connecting them to natural phenomena presented like “abnormal” and “pathological”. The Belgian biologist gives us a beautiful example of it.
Indeed, Hans de Winiwarter published two texts dealing with the topic of hermaphroditism. The first was published in Liège Médical in 1911 and explains his discovery of an “internal hermaphroditism” in a patient came for a hernia operation. Later, in 1923, he published in the Franco-Belgian Revue Anthropologique an article about "Le problème de la détermination du sexe", following advancement in the field of genetic. The comparison of discourses held in those two articles is interesting since the embryologist adopts opposite attitudes toward this phenomenon of “mixture of the sexes”. The gynaecologist seems fascinated and almost in admiration in front of his patient's unusual physiology, while the anthropologist pathologized radically intersexuality as an abnormal and dangerous deviation from the binary sexual order of mankind. To resolve this apparent paradox, we need to consider the whole context of production of scientific knowledge as well as the multiple activities and interest of the Belgian scientist.
Through this example of Hans de Winiwarter’s writings on hermaphroditism arise questions as the uses of sciences in the invention and the reinforcement of gender stereotypes or the standpoint of the researcher and its impact on problematization. Showing up how and why the biologist stigmatized hermaphroditism in his articles is also interrogate, as in a mirror, the process of selection of information in the creation of this “national heroes” in Belgian contemporary historiography.