Jenny Gristock

Jenny Gristock

storytelling, with data

Science’s Skipped Homework

Thanks to science, humans have taken a stroll on the moon, created models of DNA, played billiards with sub-atomic particles and doodled their names with atoms.

Given that scientists accomplished such such feats of technical wizardry, One might think they’d already got the basics well and truly covered.

But in the current issue of New Scientist magazine, Australian scientist Helen O’Connell shows us how wrong this view would be.

O’Connell, a surgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia, has been drawing detailed maps of a women’s bodies and has discovered that science has been working from incorrect anatomical diagrams for over 300 years.

The clitoris has in its time, been likened to tiny things like peas and pearls.

Indeed, this so-called mound of erectile tissue owes its name to the Greek word kleitoris, which means ‘little hill’.

But O’Connell’s research has shown that even the most up-to-date anatomy textbooks have no idea what the clitoris looks like. Far from being a little pea, it looks more like an enormous pearl-topped bluebell, with the hood of the flower stretching down around the vagina.

The hitherto unknown part of this flower is also astonishingly large – a whole 9cm long. This is important.

Surgeons carry out many operations in this area, operations which, some claim, have caused their love lives to suffer.

But, as Naomi Wolf notes in her book Promiscuities, the clitoris has always been science’s skipped homework.

Male scientists discovered it in 1559. And again in 1671. And in 1740.

It was forgotten about for a lot longer than usual in the 18th Century before being re-discovered (again) in 1910.

And then in 1926. And again in 1930.

And now, it has been rediscovered in 1998.

Let’s hope they don’t forget again.


First published in the South Wales Evening Post on 15 August 1998

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Jenny Gristock

Jenny Gristock is an award-winning science writer and editor.

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Jenny Gristock is an award-winning science writer and editor.


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