Dr. M.C. Diffin mdiffin at hgmp.mrc.ac.uk
Sat Aug 26 20:41:20 EST 1995

>Author writing about William Cowper, 18th C poet, needs to tackle his alleged
hermaphroditism.  Can anyone direct me to good up-to-date material on this
condition? Is it more likely for full/partial hermaphrodites to be identified
as girls at birth, and then have their sex re-attributed in late adolescence,
as in the case of hercule Barbin, rather than vice versa?
True hermaprhroditism is vanishingly rare. As testes and ovaries are present
phenotypic sex is more likely to be determined as male.

There are a number of rare (but not nearly so rare as true hermaphroditism)
disorders where phenotypic sex is ambiguous, eg testicular feminisation
syndrome, 5 alpha reductase deficiency. Obviously modern genetic methods make
it relatively easy to ascertain the chromosomal sex (as opposed to the gonadal
or phenotypic sex) so drastic mistakes in assignment are less frequent
nowadays. I believe that modern orthodoxy is to go with the assigned sex
whatever, rather than reassigning in adolescence.

For more information any embryology text should be useful. These disorders are
usually explained in some detail since they facilitate understanding of normal
development. I used:

Hamilton's Human Embryology. (c. 1978). A bit dated, but will have the
information you require.

Langman's Medical Embryology. More concise, much more recent.

For more information try a specialist human genetics text.


Michael Diffin
INTERNET: mdiffin at hgmp.mrc.ac.uk, mcd12 at mole.bio.cam.ac.uk

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