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Hardcover | $36.95 Short | £30.95 | 424 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 62 b&w illus. | November 2006 | ISBN: 9781890951672
Paperback | $24.95 Trade | £19.95 | 424 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 62 b&w illus. | March 2010 | ISBN: 9781890951689
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Secrets Of Women

Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection


Toward the end of the Middle Ages, medical writers and philosophers began to devote increasing attention to what they called "women's secrets," by which they meant female sexuality and generation. At the same time, Italian physicians and surgeons began to open human bodies in order to study their functions and the illnesses that afflicted them, culminating in the great illustrated anatomical treatise of Andreas Vesalius in 1543. Katharine Park traces these two closely related developments through a series of case studies of women whose bodies were dissected after their deaths: an abbess, a lactating virgin, several patrician wives and mothers, and an executed criminal. Drawing on a variety of texts and images, she explores the history of women's bodies in Italy between the late thirteenth and the mid-sixteenth centuries in the context of family identity, religious observance, and women's health care.Secrets of Women explodes the myth that medieval religious prohibitions hindered the practice of human dissection in medieval and Renaissance Italy, arguing that female bodies, real and imagined, played a central role in the history of anatomy during that time. The opened corpses of holy women revealed sacred objects, while the opened corpses of wives and mothers yielded crucial information about where babies came from and about the forces that shaped their vulnerable flesh. In the process, what male writers knew as the "secrets of women" came to symbolize the most difficult challenges posed by human bodies-- challenges that dissection promised to overcome. Park's study of women's bodies and men's attempts to know them--and through these efforts to know their own--demonstrates the centrality of gender to the development of early modern anatomy.

About the Author

Katharine Park's book Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (Zone Books, 1998), coauthored with Lorraine Daston, won the Pfizer Prize for the best book in the history of science. She is Zemurray Stone Radcliffe Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University.


“Park’s meticulously documented book is medical historiography at its best.... [Park] has shed light on a notion–’the secrets of women’–that should have long ago been recognized as deserving far more attention than has been paid to it.”—Sherwin B. Nuland, The New Republic


“Park's book will undoubtedly prove to be an important contribution to the history of anatomy. For the first time, it extensively discusses the history of anatomy from the viewpoint of the corpse and, because of its particular focus on women's bodies, it will radically change the way we think about the (male) history of the anatomized body.”


Winner, 2009 William Welch Medal given by the American Association for the History of Medicine.