Circumcision was introduced into the United States at a time when medicine was more folklore and conjecture than science. Doctors added to the growing body of knowledge by a combination of observation, and trial and error, and perhaps crossed fingers. Opinion rather than evidence was the rule. Eventually, the traditional practice became medicalized. This timeline takes you through that history.
The procedure became so routine that it was performed on infants without their parent’s consent. In some locales, during circumcision’s heyday (1960-1980) the circumcision rate was one-hundred percent. The U.S. circumcision rate has been steadily declining for the past thirty years as parents, doctors, nurses, and even some hospitals have abandoned the traditional surgery. During this same time frame the publication of articles promoting circumcision has increased. Here is a partial list of those endeavors.
1832 Claude-Francois Lallemand circumcises a patient to cure him of nocturnal emissions (wet dreams).
Lallemand C-F. Des Pertes Seminales Involontaires. 3vols. Paris: Brecht Jeune, 1836, 1832, 1839, 1842. vol 1., pp 463-7: vol. 2., 70-162; vol. 3., pp. 266-7, 280-9.
1845 Edward H. Dixon declares that circumcision cures and prevents masturbation.
Dixon EH. A Treatise on Diseases of the Sexual Organs. New York: Burgess, Stringer & Co. 1845. pp. 158-65.
1855 Jonathan Hutchinson publishes his theory that circumcision prevents syphilis.
Hutchinson J. On the Influence of Circumcision in Preventing Syphilis. Medical Times and Gazette 1855; 32 (844); 542-543.
1865 Nathaniel Heckford claims that circumcision cures epilepsy.
Heckford N. Circumcision as a remedial measure in certain cases of epilepsy, chorea & c. Clinical Lectures by the Medical and Surgical Staff of the London Hospital 1865; 2:58-64.
1870 Lewis A. Sayre publishes a paper stating that circumcision cures epilepsy.
Sayre LA, Detmold JC, Hutchinson R. Circumcision versus epilepsy, etc.; Transcription of the New York Pathological Society meeting of June 8, 1870. Medical Record 1870 Jul 15;5(10)231-4.
1870 Lewis A. Sayre declares that circumcision prevents spinal paralysis.
Sayre LA. Partial paralysis from reflex irritation, caused by congenital phimosis and adherent prepuce. Transactions of the American Medical Association 1870; 21:205-11
1870 Lewis A. Sayre says the foreskin causes “insanity of the muscles” and that circumcision cures this condition.
Sayre LA. Circumcision versus epilepsy, etc. Medical Record 1870-71;5:233-34.
1871 M. J. Moses asserts that circumcised Jews are immune to masturbation.
Moses MJ. The value of circumcision as a hygienic and therapeutic measure. New York Medical Journal 1871 Nov; 14(4):368-74.
1873 Joseph Bell announces his discovery that circumcision cures bedwetting.
Bell J. Nocturnal incontinence of urine cured by circumcision. Edinburgh Medical Journal 1873 May; 1(9):1034
1875 Lewis A. Sayre declares that the foreskin causes curvature of the spine, paralysis of the bladder, and clubfoot.
Sayre LA. Spinal anaemia with partial paralysis and want of coordination, from irritation of the genital organs. Transaction of the American Medical Association 1875; 26: 255-74.
1879 H. H. Kane asserts that circumcision cures nocturnal seminal emissions and abdominal neuralgia.
Kane HH. Seminal emissions, abdominal neuralgia: circumcision: cure. Southern Clinic 1879 Oct;2(1):8-11.
1881 Maximillian Landesberg announces that circumcision cures eye problems.
Landesberg M. On affections of the eye caused by masturbation. Medical Bulletin 1881 Apr;3(4):79-81.
1882 J. M. McGee circumcises dozens of boys and notes that it alleviates tubercular meningitis and myetitis, and cures brass poisoning.
McGee JM. Genital irritation as a cause of nervous disordes. Mississippi Valley Medical Monthly. 1882;2:103-105.
1886 William G. Eggleston declares the foreskin causes crossed eyes.
Eggleston WG. Two cases of reflex paraplegia (one with aphasia) from tape-worm and phimosis. JAMA 1886 May 8;6(19);511-5.
1888 John Harvey Kellogg promotes circumcision for boys to prevent them from masturbating.
Kellogg JH. “Treatment for Self-Abuse and Its Effects,” Plain Facts for Old and Young. Burlington, Iowa: F. Segner & Co. (1888) p. 107.
1890 William D. Gentry declares that circumcision cures blindness, deafness, and dumbness.
Gentry WD. Nervous derangements produced by sexual irregularities in boys. Medical Current 1890 Jul;6(7):268-74.
1890 J. Henry C. Simes states that circumcision “may be performed for moral reasons; for hygienic purposes; frequently necessary for pathological conditions; and is of unquestionably prophylactic importance.”
Simes JH. Circumcision. Annals of Gynaecology and Paediatry. 1890-91;4:375-383.
1891 Jonathan Hutchinson declares that the foreskin “constitutes a harbour for filth, and is a constant source of irritation. It conduces to masturbation and adds to the difficulties of sexual continence.”
Hutchinson J. On circumcision as preventative of masturbation. Archives of Surgery 1891 Jan;2(7):267-9.
1893 Mark J. Lehman demands immediate implementation of mass circumcision of all American boys.
Lehman MJ. A plea for circumcision. Medical Review 1893 Jul22;28(4):64-5.
1894 Remondino says circumcising Blacks prevents them from raping White women.
Remondino PC. Negro rapes and their social problems. National Popular Review 1894 Jan;4(1):3-6.
1894 H. L. Rosenberry publishes paper claiming that circumcision cures urinary and rectal incontinence.
Rosenberry HL. Incontinence of urine and faeces, cured by circumcision. Medical Record 1894 Aug 11;4(6):173.
1900 Jonathan Hutchinson pushes circumcision as a means of desensitizing the penis.
Hutchinson J. The advantages of circumcision. The Polyclinic 1900 Sep;3(9):129-31.
1901 Ernest G. Mark advises circumcision as a method of permanently desensitizing the penis.
Mark EG. Circumcision. American Practitioner and News. 1901 Feb 15; 31(4)122-6.
1902 Roswell Park publishes his paper stating that the foreskin causes epilepsy and that circumcision cures it.
Park R. The surgical treatment of epilepsy. American Medicine 1902 Nov 22;4(21):807-9.
1914 Abraham L. Wolbarst publishes his manifesto demanding the compulsory circumcision of all non-Jewish children in America.
Wolbarst AL. Universal circumcision as a sanitary measure. JAMA 1914 Jan 10;62(2):92-7.
1914 Abraham L. Wolbarst claims that circumcision prevents tuberculosis.
Wolbarst AL. Universal circumcision as a sanitary measure. JAMA 1914 Jan 10;62(2):92-7.
1926 Abraham L. Wolbarst theorizes that circumcision prevents penile cancer.
Wolbarst AL. Is circumcision a prophylactic against penis cancer? Cancer 1926 Jul;3(4):301-10.
1930 Norton Henry Bare claims that he cured a boy of epilepsy by circumcising him.
Bare NH. Surgical treatment of epilepsy with report of case. The China Medical Journal 1930 Nov;4(11):1109-13.
1932 Abraham L. Wolbarst publishes his most widely cited paper claiming that circumcision prevents penile cancer.
Wolbarst AL. Circumcision and penile cancer. Lancet 1932 Jan 16;1(5655):150-3.
1935 R. W. Cockshut demands that all boys be circumcised in order to desensitize the penis and promote chastity.
Cockshut RW. Circumcision. British Medical Journal 1935 Oct 19;2(3902):764.
1941 Alan F. Guttmacher pushes mass circumcision because the genital are easier for the mother to care for, presence of the foreskin might lead to masturbation, reduction in venereal diseases, and because it might be needed later in life. He also states that it advantageously blunts male sexual sensitivity. He then insists that a baby’s foreskin be forcibly retracted and the glans scrubbed daily.
Guttmacher AF. Should the baby be circumcised? Parents Magazine 1941 Sept; 16(9):26,76-8.
1942 Abraham Ravich claims that circumcision prevents prostate cancer.
Ravich A. The relationship of circumcision to cancer of the prostate. J Urol 1942 Sept;48(3):298-9.
1949 Eugene A. Hand declares that circumcision prevents venereal disease and cancer of the tongue.
Hand EA. Circumcision and venereal disease. Archives of Dermatology and Syphilology 1949 Sep;60(3):341-6.
1951 Abraham and R. A. Ravich state that circumcision prevents prostate and penile cancer in men, and cervical cancer in women.
Ravich A, Ravich RA. Prophylaxis of cancer of the prostate, penis, and cervix by circumcision. New York State Journal of Medicine 1951 Jun;51(12):1519-20.
1953 R. L. Miller and D. C. Snyder reveal their plan to circumcise all male babies immediately after birth while still in the delivery room to prevent masturbation and provide “immunity to nearly all physical and mental illness.”
Miller RL, Snyder DC. Immediate circumcision of the newborn male. Am J Obstet Gynecol 1953 Jan;6(1):1-11.
1954 Ernest L. Wynder publishes his paper supporting Ravich’s theory that male circumcision prevents cervical cancer in women.
Wynder EL, Cornfield J, Schroff PD, Doraiswami KR. A study of environmental factors in carcinoma of the cervix. Am J Obstet Gynecol 1954 Oct;68(4):1016-52.
1954 L. E. Holt, Jr. tentatively recommends circumcision for relieving urine obstructions, cleanliness, preventing venereal diseases, and reducing penile cancer.
Holt LE. Circumcision. Good Housekeeping. 1954;139:128.
1964 Science Magazine urges parents to circumcise their children to prevent cancer.
Circumcision urged to prevent cancer. Science Magazine. 1964;86(18):281.
1966 Masters and Johnson claim, with no supporting data, that there is no sensitivity difference between the circumcised and intact penis, misleading parents and men for forty years before being disproved.
Masters W, Johnson V. Human Sexual Response. Boston, MA. Little Brown & Co. 1966.
1969 Morris Fishbein calls for circumcision to cure masturbation and nervousness.
Fishbein M. Sex hygiene. In: Fishbein M. (ed). Modern Home Medical Adviser. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company: 1969. pp. 90, 119.
1971 Abraham Ravich states that circumcision prevents cancer of the bladder and rectum.
Ravich A. Viral carciogenesis in venereally susceptible organs. Cancer 1971 Jun;27(6):1493-6.
1973 R. Dagher, Melvin Selzer, and Jack Lapides declare that anyone who disagrees with their agenda to impose mass circumcision in America is mentally ill.
Dagher R, Selzer ML, Lapides J. Carcinoma of the penis and anti-circumcision crusade. J Urol 1973 Jul;110(1):79-80.
1985 Thomas E. Wiswell and others assert that circumcision prevents urinary tract infections.
Wiswell TE, Smith FR, Bass JW. Decreased incidence of urinary tract infections in circumcised male infants. Pediatrics 1985 May;75(5):901-3.
1986 Aaron J. Fink declares that circumcision prevents AIDS.
Fink AJ. A possible explanation for heterosexual male infection with AIDS. N Engl J Med 1986 Oct 30;31(18):1167.
1988 Aaron J. Fink asserts that circumcision prevents neonatal group B streptococcal disease.
Fink AJ. Is hygiene enough? Circumcision as a possible strategy to prevent neonatal group B streptococcal disease. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 1988 Aug;1959(2):534-5.
1991 Edgar J. Schoen tries and fails to convince European countries to institute mass circumcision.
Schoen EJ. Is it time for Europe to consider circumcision? Acta Paediatr Scand 1991 May;8(5):573-7.
1991 Aaron J. Fink declares mass circumcision is necessary to prevent sand from getting under soldiers’ foreskins.
Fink AJ. Circumcision and sand. J R Soc Med. 1991 Nov;84(11):696.
1993 Gerald N. Weiss, et al. declare that the presence of Langerhans cells in the foreskin leads to HIV infection.
Weiss GN, Sanders M, Westbrook KC. The distribution and density Langerhans cells in the human prepuce: site of a diminished response? Isr J Med Sci 1993 Jan; 29(1):42-3.
1997 Edgar J. Schoen tries and fails once again to convince European countries to institute mass circumcision.
Schoen EJ. Benefits of newborn circumcision: is Europe ignoring medical evidence? Arch Dis Child 1997 Sep;7(3):258-60.
2002 Bruce Patterson, Robert Bailey, and others say that the adult foreskin mucosa has a greater susceptibility to infection with HIV than cervical mucosa.
Patterson BK, Landay A, Siegel JN, Flener Z, Pessis D, Chaviano A, & Bailey RC. Susceptibility to human immunodeficiency virus-1 infection of human foreskin and cervical tissue grown in explant culture. Am J Pathol. 2002;161(3):867-73.
2002 The Federal agency USAID, in cooperation with RHO, and the Gates Foundation, reveals plans to export mass male circumcision to deal with the HIV crisis in Africa.
Reproductive Health Outlook report. USAID. 2002.
2003 Edgar J. Schoen steps up pressure on American Academy of Pediatrics to reverse its policy on circumcision claiming that circumcision prevents AIDS.
Schoen EJ. It’s wise to circumcise: time to change policy. Pediatrics. 2003 Jun;111(6Pt1):1490-1.
2005-7 Three experiments in sub-Saharan Africa published in rapid succession, all funded from the U.S., led by American white researchers, using the same study design, were all ended early, and came to the same conclusion touting circumcision as a “vaccine” that prevents HIV infection.
Auvert B, et al. A randomized, controlled intervention trial of male circumcision for reduction of HIV infection risk. PLoS Med 2005;2(11)e2.
Bailey RC, et al. Male circumcision for HIV prevention in young men in Kisumu, Kenya: A randomized controlled trial. Lancet, 2007;369(9562):643-56.
Gray RH, et al. Male circumcision for HIV prevention in men in Rakai, Uganda: A randomized trial. Lancet 2007;369(9562):657-66.
2007 It took 24 hours for the World Health Organization director Kevin DeCock to jump from recommending mass circumcision of African adult males to advising parents in developed countries to cut their infant sons’ genitals.
March 28, WHO hails circumcision as vital in HIV fight. NewScientist.com
March 29, WHO says circumcision trims HIV risk. CanWest March
2007 Brian Morris, Jake Waskett and Stefan Bailis reprise Ravich’s 1942 prostate cancer hypothesis.
Morris BJ, Waskett J, Bailis SA. Case number and the financial impact of circumcision in reducing prostate cancer. BJU Intl, 2007;(Online Early Articles)
2008 Maria Wawer and husband Ronald Gray find that “adult male circumcision does not adversely affect sexual satisfaction.”
Kigozi G, Watya S, Polis CB, Buwembo D, Kiggundu V, Wawer MJ, Serwadda D, Nalugoda F, Kiwanuka N, Bacon MC, Ssempijja V, Makumbi F, Gray RH. The effect of male circumcision on sexual satisfaction and function, results from a randomized trial of male circumcision for human immunodeficiency virus prevention, Rakai, Uganda. BJU Intl. 2008;101(1):65-70.
2008 Robert Bailey and Stephen Moses allege that men who volunteered for circumcision in the belief they would now be immune to HIV, did not later stop using condoms.
Mattson CL, Campbell RT, Bailey RC, Agot K, Ndinya-Achola JO, et al. (2008) Risk Compensation Is Not Associated with Male Circumcision in Kisumu, Kenya: A Multi-Faceted Assessment of Men Enrolled in a Randomized Controlled Trial. PLoS ONE. 2008:3(6): e2443
2009 Maria Wawer and husband Ronald Gray wanted to see if circumcising men reduced HIV infection in women, but the study was halted early because of futility.
Wawer MJ, Makumbi F, Kigozi G, Serwadda D, Watya S, Nalugoda F, Buwembo D, Ssempijja V, Kiwanuka N, Moulton LH, Sewankambo NK, Reynolds SJ, Quinn TC, Opendi P, Iga B, Ridzon R, Laeyendecker O, Gray RH. Circumcision in HIV-infected men and its effect on HIV transmission to female partners in Rakai, Uganda: a randomised controlled trial. Lancet 2009; 374: 229–37.
2010 Helen Weiss, Daniel Halperin and others agree that elective circumcision has complications, but that circumcisers should be better trained.
Weiss HA, Larke N, Halperin D, Schenker I. Complications of circumcision in male neonates,infants and children: a systematic review. BMC Urology 2010;10(2):1-13.
2011 Brian Morris, Ronald Gray, and Daniel Halperin make the discovery that if you amputate the end of the penis it won’t later get cancer.
Morris BJ, Gray RH, Castellsague X, Bosch FX, Halperin DT, Waskett JH, Hankins CA. The strong protective effect of circumcision against cancer of the penis. Adv Urol. Epub 2011 May 22.
2012 Robert Bailey, et al. say targeting parents will result in more circumcisions than trying to convince adult men to volunteer.
Young MR, Odoyo-June E, Nordstrom SK, Irwin TE, Ongong’a DO, Ochomo B, Agot K, & Bailey RC. Factors associated with uptake of infant male circumcision for HIV prevention in western Kenya. Pediatrics. 2012. Epub 2012 Jun 18.
2012 Aaron Tobian, et al. conclude that decreasing circumcision rates are associated with increased infection, thereby increasing medical expenditures.
Kacker S, Frick KD, Gaydos CA, Tobian AAR. Costs and effectiveness of neonatal male circumcision. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2012;166(10):910-918.
2013 Brian Morris and Aaron Tobian opine that legislators do not have the right to restrict or prohibit genital mutilation.
Morris BJ, Tobian AAR. Legal threat to infant male circumcision. JAMA Pediatrics. 2013;e1-e2.
2014 Brian Morris, Stefan Bailis, and Thomas Wiswell convince the Mayo Clinic that circumcision is like vaccination, failure to circumcise is unethical, and that circumcision of newborn boys should be a mandatory part of public health policies. Furthermore, campaigns should target population subgroups.
Morris BJ, Bailis SA, Wiswell TE. Circumcision rates in the United States: rising or falling? What effect might the new affirmative pediatric policy statement have? Mayo Clin Proc. 2014. [Epub ahead of print].
2014 Ronald Gray and wife Maria Wawer were astonished that only one-quarter of adult men volunteered to be circumcised.
Kong X, Ssekasanvu J, Kigozi G, Lutalo T, Nalugoda F, Serwadda D, Wawer M, Gray R. Male circumcision coverage, knowledge, and attitudes after 4-years of program scale-up in Rakai, Uganda. AIDS Behav. 2014;18(5):880-4.
edited and updated with permission by Dan Bollinger
- Frederick M. Hodges. “Circumcision Timeline: A History of Medical Error, Medical Fraud and Medical Abuse.” The Compleat Mother. Fall, 2003;71:25-27. ↩