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Taylor M. Moore: “‘Living Fossils’: Pelvic Bones and Fertile Wombs as Objects of Natural History in Semicolonial Egypt”

The skeletal perfection of the Egyptian woman

Thursday, April 5, 2018, 4:30 PM
Building 200, Room 307

In the late 1920s, gynecologist Naguib Mahfouz dissected the vagina of a young, Egyptian woman named Henhenit. The urinary fistula lodged between her genital apparatus and urinary tract, he believed, served as evidence that gynecological diseases had plagued women from “time immemorial.” Henhenit’s pelvic region, while well preserved, was over two thousand years old. Despite its age, her womb and the bones encasing it were the keys to a fertile reproductive future for the newly independent nation. Yet, Henhenit’s womb was not the only female Egyptian body under scientific scrutiny.

Egyptian medical students examined skeletal remains in their lecture halls; Egyptologists raided necropolises in search of the ancient secrets of the dead; and anthropologists conducted ethnographic and anthropometric surveys on the bodies of living women in Upper Egypt. La femme pharonique, as the living Upper Egyptian woman was dubbed, was a unique scientific specimen for early twentieth century scientists—a ‘living fossil.’ They hypothesized that her skeletal structure, particularly the size and shape of her pelvic bone, was an atavistic trait characteristic of ancient Egyptian women. Unlike Henhenit, these women could be observed in the flesh, in their ‘natural environment’ of Upper Egypt, a region deemed isolated and immune to the passing of time.

This talk examines the ways in which the pelvic bones and wombs of Upper Egyptian women took on new scientific and cultural meanings in the first half of the twentieth century as scientists and social reformers ‘returned to the womb’ seeking answers to questions of Egyptian natural history, social Darwinian theories of evolution and race, and neo-Malthusian hopes to decrease the country’s infant mortality rate. It explores how the bodies of Upper Egyptian women, both living and deceased, became specimen of scientific inquiry in museums, dissection halls, and in the field.

Taylor M. Moore is a PhD candidate specializing in Modern Middle Eastern History at Rutgers University and a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellow and a Fellow-in-Residence at the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Philadelphia.

presented with HPS