Nobel Laureates for Genital Integrity:
Francis Crick - George Wald
Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the
7th International Symposium on Human Rights and Modern Society on April 5,
in Washington, D.C., and at the 16th World Congress of Sexology on March 13, 2003 in Havana,
The worldwide human rights movement for bodily integrity has support from some of the world’s finest scientists, among them Nobel laureates in Physiology and Medicine Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the molecular structure of the DNA molecule, and George Wald, discoverer of vitamin A in the retina of the eye and how it functions with light there to form the molecular and energetic basis of vision.
In 1995, Crick endorsed “The Ashley Montagu Resolution To End The Genital Mutilation Of Children Worldwide –– A Petition To The World Court, the Hague”, as have many others concerned for children’s legal and human rights, health, and lives. This petition and its predecessor, the “Universal Declaration on Circumcision, Excision, and Incision”, were written by developmental neuropsychologist James Prescott, Ph.D., and adopted by the 1st and 4th International Symposia on Circumcision, in 1989 and 1996. See http://www.nocirc.org/
Now many new endorsers are joining Francis Crick, Marilyn Milos, Ashley Montagu, James Prescott, Jonas Salk, Benjamin Spock, George Wald and many others supporting genital integrity for all human children by endorsing this declaration and petition at the web site, http://MontaguNOCIRCpetition.org.
Wald (1906 - 1997) –– child of immigrant New York Jewish
parents, beloved Harvard biology professor, and an important
In 1975 George Wald wrote and offered for publication in The New Yorker a so-far unpublished essay called "Circumcision" –– reviewed here in some detail –– becoming the first Nobel laureate known to the author to have worked to protect the human right to genital integrity.
Key words: human rights, genital integrity, genital mutilation,
genital cutting, genital modification, circumcision, Nobel prize laureates
Nobel Laureates for Genital Integrity: Francis Crick – George Wald
The international movement to protect the human rights of minors to their own bodily integrity has strong support from some of the world’s greatest scientists.
The Ashley Montagu Resolution
It was with great joy that I learned several years ago
about the “Ashley Montagu Resolution to End the Genital Mutilation of Children
Worldwide –– A Petition to the World Court, The Hague”, written by developmental
neuropsychologist James W. Prescott, Ph.D. Dr. Prescott named the resolution
and petition in honor of the anthropologist, Ashley Montagu. It was adopted
in 1996 by the Fourth International Symposium on Sexual Mutilations, which
was held in Lausanne,
Francis H.C. Crick, Ph.D., Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine 1962
Then I learned that Nobel laureate, Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule and winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, endorsed this important human rights resolution in 1995.
I thank Dr. Prescott for writing the Montagu Resolution, and for beginning the process of inviting the world to sign it. I thank him, too, for all of his important scientific work in developmental neuropsychology and comparative anthropology demonstrating scientifically the urgent necessity for ending the genital mutilation of children worldwide. Much of his important scientific work is available at the website <http://violence.de>.
The Montagu Resolution and Petition to the World Court, and Francis Crick’s and Jonas Salk’s endorsing letters for it are now included, together with other important human rights materials, in a website at http://MontaguNoCircPetition.org. There you may join with Francis Crick, Fran Hosken, Hanny Lightfoot-Klein, Marilyn Milos, Ashley Montagu, Jim Prescott, Jonas Salk, Benjamin Spock, Thomas Szasz, George Wald, and many others, in support of this resolution and cause.
This webite is functioning as an important resource, where people throughout the world can not only join this movement and watch it grow, but also use the site –– an increasingly powerful tool as more and more people sign it –– to help protect children from the emotional, sexual, and bodily harm of genital mutilation.
I hope readers will sign it on the web at their earliest opportunity. Do it today and tell all your friends. Every person in the world needs to understand the importance of genital integrity and to speak up and act up for it. Invite everybody. Go get ’em.
I am very grateful especially to Jim Prescott and to Marilyn Milos, founder of NoCirc, for their encouragement and help in creating this new website, and to our skilled and dedicated webmaster, Brian Keller-Heikkila.
Dr. Prescott’s work in writing this petition and in gathering support for it, especially from Nobel laureate Crick, had great significance for me, personally, because of events important in my own life beginning decades earlier.
George Wald, Harvard Biology Professor
I am profoundly grateful to the universe as a whole today that I am able to introduce you to my teacher and my friend, Harvard biology professor and 1967 Nobel laureate in Physiology and Medicine, George Wald.
I first started learning about Wald in my freshman dormitory room at Harvard in September of 1961. Some upstart Harvard students had recently taken to commenting on and giving their professors grades and publishing this effrontery as the “Confidential Guide”, for each other’s benefit. It was our "Bible" in our twice-yearly search for courses. As I recall it now, the “Confi-Guide” told me two important things that fall:
1) “Get a freshman seminar if you can”, which I was very fortunate to be able to do with a wonderful Greek anthropologist, Dr. Dorothy Lee, and
2) “Don’t you dare leave Harvard without getting to know George Wald. The best way to begin is to take his course, Natural Sciences 5, 'The Nature of Living Things’, one of Harvard’s best.”
I accepted the wisdom of my elders –– unusual for me –– and signed up for lectures by George on Monday and Wednesday at noon, plus a Thursday afternoon three-hour biology laboratory.
“The Nature of Living Things” was much more than
a standard introductory college biology course. It was a tour of the then
known physical universe, living and not, with a consummate tour guide who
soon would win the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery
of Vitamin A in the retina of the eye and how visual pigments there work
with light to form the molecular and energetic basis of vision. A top research
scientist, George was also later declared by Time magazine one of
George loved teaching, "especially freshmen", he told us, "because your minds are still fresh". It occurred to me in writing this talk that perhaps I am still a Harvard freshman of sorts –– having taken a leave of absence after freshman year, which I am still enjoying –– partly because I never wanted to leave George’s wonderful presence. Perhaps by going on leave I was just doing the best I could to stop the ravages of time.
We loved George because he embodied for us what Albert Schweitzer called “Reverence for Life”, and he made it clear to us that “life”, for him, included us, individually. It was a startling revelation to me to find myself, a "lowly" freshman, revered by such a great man. It was one of the first times in my life I ever felt really included in the adult world.
George included in his reverence the entire scientifically knowable world, not just the biological life within it. The nonliving universe was as much to be studied, understood, appreciated, and revered as biological life, which, for him as a biologist, had arisen –– with evolutionary hindsight, seemingly inevitably –– within this amazing and lawful structure and process we know as physical reality. We are, he thought, intrinsic to it, and it to us. We ARE it. It is we. "We’re home here", he taught us, and he showed us the most gargantuan and minute details of our home –– including those of our own bodies –– through the eyes of astronomers like Galileo, Brahe, Kepler, and Hubble, cosmologists Gamou and Hoyle; physicists Newton, Curie, Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, Plank, Fermi, Gell-Mann; biologists galore, Darwin and the evolutionists, geneticists Mendel, Watson and Crick. Fireworks! And George had all the matches.
He was loved by students at Harvard because he was not only an exciting teacher and revealer of the nature of reality as seen in some ways so clearly and so exquisitely by science, but also a deeply humane man, a gentle, strong, loving, vital, highly intelligent, highly articulate man, someone each of us could look up to, and strive to be like.
George became one of the early and strong opponents of the Vietnam War, and spent the last quarter century of his life intensely engaged in the struggle for justice and peace in the world. He called my family one time after a particularly important meeting with Michael Gorbachev, needing to talk with “normal folks”, he told us. This provided and still provides moments of high hilarity in our home. He must have been REALLY desperate if he needed US to provide some normality in his life!
George’s professional life, in addition to the teaching he loved so much, was one dedicated to the process of asking important scientific questions and finding verifiable scientific answers to them. He told us that answers are relatively easy to come by in science; that the really hard part, and the important part, not just of science but of life itself, is realizing which questions are important to ask in the first place, and figuring out how to ask them intelligently, so the correct answers come out as a matter of course.
George Wald, Ph.D., Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine –– 1967
Let me take you into the heart of George’s scientific world for a moment. Here are two short paragraphs from the Nobel presentation speech to George and his fellow Nobel laureates in Physiology and Medicine in 1967:
"Professor Granit, Professor Hartline, Professor Wald. Your discoveries have deepened our insight into the nature of the subtle processes in the eye, which form the basis of our ability to perceive light and to distinguish brightness, colour, form and movement. They have also proved to be of paramount importance for the understanding of sensory processes in general." 
And a little later in this same talk:
"Professor Wald. With a deep biological insight and a great biochemical skill you have successfully identified visual pigments and their precursors. As a byproduct you were able to describe the absorption spectra of the different types of cones serving colour vision. Your most important discovery of the primary molecular reaction to light in the eye represents a dramatic advance in vision since it plays the role of a trigger in the photoreceptors of all living animals." 
Then Wald began his Nobel acceptance speech, talking again about questions and answers. Here is his first short paragraph in Sweden:
"I have often had cause to feel that my hands are cleverer than my head. That is a crude way of characterizing the dialectics of experimentation. When it is going well it is like a quiet conversation with Nature. One asks a question and gets an answer; then asks the next question and gets the next answer. An experiment is a device to make Nature speak intelligibly. After that one has only to listen."
You may read these speeches if you like on the Nobel website at http://nobelprize.org/medicine/laureates/1967/index.html.
A special delight is George's brief Nobel banquet speech. Don't miss it!
Questions and Answers About Circumcision
The questions I had asked at Harvard and afterward about the anatomy, anthropology, biology, history, mythology, neurology, religion, psychology, and psychopathology involved in mutilating human genitals had been followed by some often disturbing but –– with hindsight –– inevitable answers. Often I wished I had never asked these questions, nor listened to nor heard their tragic answers, but I had, and for me there was no turning back to the blindness and ignorance of my earlier years in my genitally mutilating culture of origin.
By a couple of years after George’s talk in Sweden I was beginning to feel frustrated in my search for right questions about circumcision. I had reached a plateau in my understanding of the causes and effects of genital mutilations, and I felt blocked from making further progress, perhaps, I thought, because I was not sharing with my unknowingly genitally mutilating home town the bad news I had discovered. I felt I was unjustifiably withholding this important information from its cluelsss inhabitants, and I sensed that I might therefore also be unconsciously withholding further important information about genital mutilations from myself. If I was hesitant to tell them what I was discovering, maybe I was hesitant to let myself know more and grow as well.
I thought that perhaps I could shake things loose for myself and find more questions by making my hard-won if so far incomplete knowledge public in Tallahassee with a circumcision protest in front of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. For this impudence my brother, Ben, and I were arrested and jailed for the afternoon on December 17, 1970. That's a long story in itself.
Shortly afterward, it happened as I had hoped it might. One morning waking up, I began wondering, asking myself, “What would it feel like to have my foreskin back where it belongs?”, and then imagining the answer. Suddenly it hit me that my foreskin would be warm flesh enclosing and protecting my glans penis. The foreskin seemed to me at that moment to be very much like a male vagina. And then I realized that maybe one reason the doctor circumcised my infant penis in May of 1943, and maybe a reason circumcisers on this planet for millennia before and ever since have been chopping off boys’ healthy foreskins, is that they regarded the male foreskin, perhaps usually unconsciously, as being, of all things, feminine.
The gender identity anxieties and homophobia underlying circumcising had suddenly become apparent to me. I felt I had asked another right question at last, and gotten a big chunk of the answer I had been seeking ever since my Harvard days.
George Wald in Tallahassee –– 1975
Four years later, in February, 1975, George appeared at Florida State University to give a lecture about life. I attended, and went to the discussion and reception afterwards with my mother, wife, and baby daughter.
After thanking him for his wonderful course at Harvard, I asked George if I could take him to the airport when he was ready to go. He agreed.
The next morning early, riding in the car with my deeply humane, deeply revered college biology professor, free at last from the impenetrable ignorance of the local Tallahassee society that only a few years earlier had locked me in jail for daring to think about sex and sex organs and talk about them and my thoughts about them in public, I knew what question I had to ask: “George, have you ever thought much about circumcision, from a biological point of view?”
His eyes grew big.
He was surprised by my question, I think, not because I had asked it, but because he –– a Nobel laureate Harvard biologist who had spent his scientific career studying a human sensory system in molecular detail –– he never had. Not my question; it was his own answer that shocked him:
“No”, he said. “I never have. I’ll have to go
home and do that.”
I told him about my genital mutilation questions from my anthropology and Nat Sci 5 days, the plateau and block I had reached by 1970 in my own efforts at understanding, and my consequent decision to go public with my circumcision protest, and the arrest.
We arrived then at the airport and discovered that his plane was to be late. I had this Nobel laureate Harvard biologist, this magnificent teacher and human being all to myself in the Tallahassee airport for two hours, a lonely young intactivist jailbird’s dream.
We went on talking.
Later that year he would write, “Suddenly he said something that shook me.”
I told him about my reward for the jailing, finding a “female” sex organ on the penis, of all places.
“My God!”, he exclaimed. “That’s wonderful! Because we’ve always been told that the clitoris is the male element in a female!” Then he told me about the Dogon, an African tribe that practices both male and female genital mutilation.
His plane arrived and I had to let him go.
“Circumcision” – George Wald’s Historic Essay on Genital Mutilation
Six months later, in August, 1975, I received in the mail a package I still have and greatly treasure. I saw that it was from George. I opened the package and pulled out a photocopy of a 39-page typewritten manuscript –– soon expanded to 42 –– an essay called “Circumcision”, written by the great Nobel laureate Harvard biologist and social activist, George Wald.
In describing for you just now my wonderful Tallahassee experience with George, I have given you the substance of the first two pages of his essay, his introduction. The rest he divides into six parts. Here are some of George’s points from each, and some quotes:
1. The Primitive Event: An Initiation Rite
George says here that suddenly at the Tallahassee airport everything fell into place for him. Puberty rites are about taking boys and girls and making “full men and women” out of them by chopping out that physical element in each sex that is perceived, even if unconsciously, to be of the other; the “masculine” clitoris in females, the “feminine” foreskin in males.
2. The Jewish Rite
Here George tells us that the Jewish rite is “something else again, being confined to males and performed in earliest infancy.”
He explores two of the questions we discussed at the airport, that I had been asking since Harvard: Why only male genital mutilation in Judaism? Why no female circumcision? And why displaced to infancy only in Judaism, almost alone in all the world until the advent of infant "medical" circumcision in the mid-nineteenth century?
3. Male and Female in the Jewish Tradition
In this section George discusses some possible answers to these twin puzzles about Jewish circumcision.
4. Is Circumcision a Health Measure?
George says: “... In recent times this practice has been taken up widely as a supposed ‘health measure’... With what justification?", he asks.
He reviews in some detail the medical literature available through 1972. He looks at infant circumcision and the pathogenic consequences of adult failure to understand and respect the normal biological development of the penis and foreskin from intrauterine life to sexual maturity. He concludes: “Clearly the way to deal with unretractable foreskins in boys is not to circumcise, but to wait.”
He looks at the class aspects of circumcision, the economics, the penile and cervical cancer allegations, and all the rest of it, and then says, in 1975:
“... Having read both sides of the argument carefully, I come out convinced that there can be little wrong with keeping the foreskin that the habit of washing won’t fix” and “... regarding infant circumcision as a ‘health measure’ is only to rationalize what is in fact a distressing mutilation of young infants.”
5. The Mothers
George asks here another question we discussed in the airport: “Why do gentile mothers have their sons circumcised?”
After considering several popular irrational excuses for this sexual mutilation, he is left to conclude, somewhat mystified, it seems: “Whatever their reasons, the mothers do opt for this operation, at present almost universally in our country ...”.
In an effort at deeper understanding, he calls an obstetrician friend who invites him to observe a hospital circumcision.
I wish George had seen the infant genital mutilation I saw. The boy he saw mutilated was one of those who go into shock, disassociation, and unconsciousness almost immediately, unable to deal in any other way with the overwhelming trauma they are experiencing and unable to stop. The one I saw reacted more violently than any human being I have ever seen react to anything, screaming –– in between bouts of violent projectile vomiting –– in a way I have never heard a human being scream, but eventually, suddenly, he became entirely limp. He, too, was knocked unconscious by the trauma. After it was all over –– it'll never be over for that boy –– the apparently genuinely oblivious circumciser asked me, "Did you have any objection to that?" I very badly wanted to kick him in the groin as hard as I possibly could, and then ask him, "Did YOU have any objection to THAT?"
After the mutilation George witnessed, the surgeon says to him, “Are you for it or against it? I suppose you’re neutral.”
“I’m against it”, George declares.
“So am I”, the mutilator replies.
6. “The Outcome”
“I have come a long journey since Tallahassee”, says George. “It is not yet over; I wonder whether it ever will be. There is a lot more to explore. Yet I should like to say where this encounter finds me now.” ...
“It’s curious –– and revealing –– how few persons think about circumcision, or indeed about anything involving the genitalia, even their own. What do they even look like? Are they pretty much alike from person to person, or do they vary a little, or a lot? One hardly knows. At one point in writing this essay I looked through the shelves in our Biological Laboratory Library, through books on the senses, on neurophysiology and neuroanatomy, some of them medical textbooks. I was looking for what new information there might be on sensory responses from the glans penis and foreskin. Neither of those words was in the index of any of those books.
“I hadn’t thought at all about circumcision until that conversation in Tallahassee; but now that I have thought about it –– ... I could not bring myself to have another infant of mine circumcised.
“There is a complication, for I am a Jew, circumcised as is my son. A non-observing Jew, a non-believer in anything supernatural, yet deeply involved, a Bible reader -- of both Testaments -- and very much a Jew. For me there are special barriers against deciding not to circumcise; for it is hard to break with a tradition that one’s ancestors have observed for thousands of years, however else one feels.” …
“It seems to me that a final consideration might bear upon this problem. Child sacrifice (to ‘Moloch’) was a common rite among the ancient peoples of the Near East, and Jews were forbidden it in the harshest terms (Leviticus 20: 1-2). When God laid claim to all firstborn males, he specified that though those of the domestic animals were to be sacrificed, children were to be redeemed. As Moses, having been instructed by God, explained to the people: ‘I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb; but all the first-born of my sons I redeem’ (Exodus 13: 15). And one of the ordinances that God gave to Moses along with the Ten Commandments states: ‘The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do likewise with your oxen and your sheep: seven days it shall be with its dam; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.’ (Exodus 22: 29).
“That command to sacrifice the male firstborn of a domestic animal, taking it from its mother when it is eight days old, makes one wonder whether the prescribed circumcision of sons on the eighth day was once a form of redemption, the token sacrifice of the foreskin to substitute for sacrifice of the child. In any case the principle of redemption runs through these commandments, not only the obligatory redemption of sons, but ‘every firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a lamb...’ (Exodus 13: 13).
“It is with the greatest hesitation, since I have no right and know so little, that I should like to suggest to my fellow Jews that perhaps the time has come to redeem the foreskin itself, rather than sacrifice it. Surely some substitute might be found for this rite ... that would be preferable to this assault upon and mutilation of a newborn infant.
“Since by now I would not circumcise even a Jewish infant, I would not dream of doing this to a gentile child. I would know no medical reason to deprive my sons of their foreskins, ...”
“For it is a barbarous thing to meet a newly born infant with the knife, with a deliberate mutilation. And the part that is removed is not negligible; it has clear and valuable functions to perform. Not circumcising a boy will not only spare him a brutal violence as he enters life; it will promise him a richer existence. And that not only because the possession of a foreskin will increase his genital sensitivity and make possible more satisfactory and pleasurable sexual activity; but also because of the consideration with which this essay began: that the foreskin is the female element in the male.
“To be sure, that is only a primitive insight, and has no standing in science. Yet that is hardly a criticism. What we consider to be male or female is largely cultural in any case; many of our conventional notions in this regard are now in flux and being challenged. This one has more basis in reality than most. Also unlike many unscientific interpretations of reality that are misleading and dehumanizing, this one can sustain, enrich and illuminate. It offers some redress where it is most needed, in a world increasingly devastated and threatened with destruction by a rampant machismo, a mindless exercise of organized aggressive maleness. ...”
“... The circumcised organ is only the beginning of it, and kept hidden. What are displayed, like so much male plumage, are the penis surrogates and aggrandizements: the guns; the cars, named for predatory beasts, driven to and from work like PT boats; the flaunting of power and status; the devastation of the earth and the cultivation of a technology of death and destruction beyond any former imagining, all in the pursuit of an obsessive accumulation of wealth far beyond any possibility of use –– all the brutal, gaudy, pretentious and infinitely dangerous panoply of male aggression that now envelopes and threatens our lives.
“This is no time to circumcise males. They need all the female element they can get.
“For every child is born into the world with much of one sex and a little of the other. The mistake is by a mutilation to take that little of the other sex away. It should be left as nature evolved it, as in the child, so that all our lives we can go on being much of one sex, and always a little of the other.”
George’s essay ends there. I read it carefully over and over again, took detailed notes on it, and wrote a long letter back to him expressing my deep appreciation for his brilliant work on the subject and offering many detailed observations about what he had written. 
Soon thereafter, George told me that he had submitted a revised and expanded version to William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker. Shawn had already published important work by Wald in the magazine. In his cover letter to Shawn, dated 18 August 1975, Wald wrote:
I have been absorbed all summer in writing the enclosed paper. The beginning of it will tell you how that happened. Gradually I realized that I was writing it for you. I don’t know how strange you will find that; but I think that The New Yorker has the weight and depth and the readership that I want most to reach and that will most respond. If it jumps off from there it will go far.
The subject has its fascinations of many kinds — social, theological, anthropological, deeply personal; but this essay is trying also to meet a problem, it takes a position. The medical literature turned anti-circumcision ten years ago, but almost none of that has filtered through to the mothers. Perhaps this paper will do that job. There will be plenty of flak. 
On 8 September 1975, Shawn replied:
Broad as our range may be, this subject seems somehow beyond it. What you have to say is, as always, important and sounds right. We are most grateful to you for letting us consider this. I hope that all is well with you. 
Wald told me later that The New Yorker had found his essay “too radical.” Yes, it was. He was getting to the root of the matter, and nearly nobody wanted that in 1975, same as today.
In June, 2000, at our 35th Harvard class reunion, I discussed Wald's essay with Hendrick Hertzberg, senior editor at The New Yorker, hoping that the magazine might still have a copy of his final version and trying to get more information about the reason for Shawn’s rejection of it. Hertzberg later wrote to me:
I am not at all surprised that Shawn turned it down. The reason, I’m sure, is that he was incredibly queasy about anything involving bodily functions and/or private parts. He wouldn’t have even allowed the word ‘foreskin’ into the magazine, let alone publish an entire article about the cutting off of same. 
Sometime in the early 1990s on one of my occasional visits to Cambridge, George had mentioned to me that he was serving on the advisory board of a “local Jewish anti-circumcision group.” At the time, I was unaware that there was a significant national and international movement to secure the human right to genital integrity for all, not just for females, and, much to my current regret, I failed to recognize the importance of what he was telling me. I think I was still sensitive at the time about "staying out of Jews' business", as if protecting the human rights and lives of Jews was none of mine. (I know now that it is. Protecting everyone's human rights is everyone's business.) Had I had time to ask George about it then perhaps I would have learned from him about the modern human rights movement to protect children’s genitals from harm by adults, because at the time he knew more about it than I did.
In April, 2002, I spoke about George and his opposition to circumcision/genital mutilation to the Seventh International Symposium on Human Rights in Washington, D.C. After my talk Ronald Goldman, a Ph.D. psychologist and founder of the Circumcision Resource Center in Boston, told me that George joined the CRC’s Professional Advisory Board in December, 1992. The CRC is on the web at http://circumcision.org.
Goldman’s letter of 22 December 1992 welcoming him to CRC’s board mentions George's continuing efforts to get "Circumcision" published:
It is with great pleasure and gratitude that I welcome you to the Professional Advisory Board of the Circumcision Resource Center. I hope that your support for our work will assist us in our goal of educating the public about the practice of circumcision. ...
I look forward to seeing your article on circumcision and wish you well in having it published. 
Wald sought a publisher for his essay during three decades, the 1970s, '80s and '90s, but never found one. The essay remains unpublished as of early 2005, 30 years after it was written with such intelligence, care and concern. I see this censorship as clear evidence of our society's deep preference for and firm commitment to ignorance on the subject, but Wald insured the essay's survival by depositing a copy of his final version among his extensive papers in the Harvard Archives where it rests today, still ignored — still greatly feared and deliberately censored — by a nation even more urgently in need of its wisdom today than when he wrote it in 1975.
I continue to hope that some day the essay itself will be published in complete form just as Wald wrote it and just as he purposefully left it for a world he understood and loved so well. It is a magnificent and historic document. One day the world will know it and revere Wald for it.
George's Achievement Must Truly Become Our Own
I have given you some –– but only some –– of the highlights of this important, timely and historic essay from one of the greatest scientists, humanists, and teachers of the 20th century. Wald doesn’t talk much in his essay about a number of factors that we find important today in studying and understanding genital mutilations. For example, he didn’t seem to understand clearly then how some babies, while being circumcised, may appear to be quiet and almost peaceful, while they are actually in a state of shock and psychological dissociation from the trauma that is happening to them and that they are powerless to stop, although he does even touch on this a little as well. Perhaps he understood it better than he was letting on. Another example: Although his essay proceeds from a deep personal sense of responsibility for right living, the words "medical ethics" do not appear in it.
But notice that despite all of the ignorance of the time compared to what is known scientifically today –– especially I think of the anatomy including the neuroanatomy of the foreskin and its ridged band that we now have thanks to Taylor, Lockwood, Taylor and Cold  –– and despite his own history and his family's cultural and religious background (profoundly good elements of which he rightly highly cherished; he was born of immigrant Jewish parents in New York City), in 1975, at 68 years of age, he is able, long before most of us, and after being confronted only briefly with the issue in a passing conversation, to study circumcision seriously and carefully, and to differentiate the past –– including the long human past, his distant ancestors’, his present family’s, and his own past –– from the clear responsibilities and requirements of the human future, and to come out with correct answers for important scientific, medical, and human questions he asked himself in response to the simple question I asked him on the way to the airport. That’s the kind of man he was, curious, capable, good at recognizing, from wherever they might arise, and at asking his own important questions, and highly skilled at finding correct answers to them, even in the absence of complete information.
“George,” I had asked, “have you ever thought much about circumcision?” I could see the surprise registering in his eyes instantly, shock that he –– at 68 and a socially and politically active Nobel laureate Harvard biologist –– had never asked this obvious, important, scientific, biological, human, and deeply personal question of himself.
If this obvious question is even too difficult to see for a biological scientist and a humanist of his caliber, who spent his scientific career making fundamental discoveries about human and animal sense organs –– eyes –– and who had a deep personal interest in anthropology and all things human, then perhaps we don’t have to be so hard on ourselves and each other for taking so long to ask this obvious question of ourselves, and for avoiding its inevitable answers and thereby hurting so many people with our own hysterical blindness before finally seeing in strong harsh light, in sharp focus with our own newly opened eyes, the terrible truths about genital mutilation.
I think one of the important reasons that George was able to understand the issue of circumcision so well and so quickly when finally it was called to his attention, was that he had good preparation for it, having spent his scientific career studying the human visual sense organ system in exquisite detail, becoming the first human being to understand the basis of sight at the molecular and energetic level in the retina of the eye. When I invited him to change the focus of his attention from the visual eye to what I call the "sexual eye" he was able to do so quickly, if not altogether easily. I don’t think it’s easy for any of us, especially for those of us who have been genitally mutilated. Usually we’d rather not know, so most of us still don’t. I believe it is this deep and widespread preference of adults in genitally mutilating cultures for ignorance on the subject, and this blinding preference alone, which makes the journey to freedom from genital mutilation for the world's children such a long, torturous, dangerous road.
In honor of my friend, George Wald, and of his scientific career, and because I find it useful in discussions of genital mutilation with people, I call the ridged band the male’s "sexual eye". Perhaps this term can help the world to see that if we want the human future to be better than our past and present, we must stop sexually blinding our offspring.
"Without nerve endings, one cannot
feel -- much as without eyes, one cannot see." Fran
My Goodbye to George Wald
I last saw George in 1995, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I had set out down Brattle Street hoping to catch him at home when I spotted him on the opposite side of the street with Ruth Hubbard, his wife, also a retired Harvard biology professor, making their way together slowly in toward Harvard Square. As I remember, it was a fine, clear, warm October day, and I was excited to see them again, but rather than chance further slowing their walk, I stayed on my own side of the road and followed along behind, watching their gentle progress up the sidewalk, thinking about the decades I had known him, first as my teacher and mentor and later as my very dear friend. I loved the man, from the very first lecture ever I heard him give at Harvard. Can you tell?
When they got to the square, George found a comfortable spot to sit in the sun, and Ruth went off on errands of her own. As at the Tallahassee airport 20 years earlier –– for just a little while –– I had him to myself again.
I walked over and sat down beside him. He looked over at me and smiled. I smiled back.
“I’ve finally gotten really old, Van”, he said.
He would be 90 in a few months. He lived in every decade
of the 20th century, missing only a few years at either end. I gave him
some blue-green algae dietary supplements that I thought would interest him. He
had taught us about the blue-greens in 1961. We talked about important and
unimportant things again, until Ruth came back for him, and they headed back
down Brattle together, for home.
George died on April 12th, 1997, just a little too soon for me to tell him about the Ashley Montagu Resolution and the modern movement for male genital integrity, but he knew more about it than I did. He was on Goldman's board, still trying to protect the children when he died.
Progress –– Slow but Sure, and Accelerating
Many people around the world are awakening now to these
important human realities that George confronted and explained so well way
back in 1975. He would have been very happy to have known, for instance,
about the World Association of Sexology’s “Valencia Declaration on Sexual
Rights”, adopted at the 13th World Congress of Sexology in Valencia, Spain,
in June, 1997, only a couple of months after he died, and the improved “Declaration
of Sexual Rights”, adopted at the 14th World Congress of Sexology in Hong
Kong, August 26, 1999. From the 1999 declaration, here are the end of the
preamble, human sexual right #2, and the final sentence:
“Sexual rights are universal human rights based on the inherent freedom, dignity, and equality of all human beings. Since health is a fundamental human right, so must sexual health be a basic human right.
“In order to assure that human beings and societies develop healthy sexuality, the following sexual rights must be recognized, promoted, respected, and defended by all societies through all means. Sexual health is the result of an environment that recognizes, respects and exercises these sexual rights.”
"2. The right to sexual autonomy, sexual integrity, and safety of the sexual body. This right involves the ability to make autonomous decisions about one's sexual life within a context of one's own personal and social ethics. It also encompasses control and enjoyment of our own bodies free from torture, mutilation and violence of any sort."
"Sexual Rights are Fundamental and Universal Human Rights"
Well done, sexologists of the world!
I thank all people around the world who are helping in the important human rights work to end the genital mutilation of children. They remind me a lot of George Wald; gentle, strong, loving, kind, vital, highly intelligent, highly articulate people.
And hello again to George!
And finally, George: Welcome to these many merry
bands of new intactivist friends we are finding now around the world. I
thank you, too, for having the intellectual integrity and the human courage
to make yourself one of us decades ago, when to do so was virtually unheard
of, especially among people in the public eye. To my knowledge, you are
the first Nobel laureate to give us clear, eloquent opposition to male genital
mutilation. Certainly you will not be the last. I thank you for your courage,
your work, your good heart, and your effective leadership toward a better
future for the human race.
We’ve come a long, long way since Harvard and Tallahassee, George, you and I, and we have so much farther yet to go, but isn’t it wonderful we have such friends to go and grow with as these we now are finding all over the world, one by precious one.
We were blinded, George, but now we see.
George David Wald, 1906-1997, was a Nobel laureate in Physiology and Medicine, Higgins Professor of Biology at Harvard University, and a promoter of progressive political and social causes. His 1975 essay, “Circumcision”, resides now in the Harvard University Archives, in his box 103. He left responsibility for decisions about publication of his many papers and materials in the Archives with his widow, Ruth Hubbard, who courageously gave permission for George's essay to be published in "FLESH AND BLOOD: Perspectives of the Problem of Circumcision in Contemporary Society" (Jan 2004), but the publisher's economics, I was told, prevented its publication there. For research purposes only, prior to publication of it, a non-publishable photocopy of the typewritten manuscript may be obtained from the Harvard Archives. The web address is http://hul.harvard.edu/huarc/
This Harvard University website contains much information on Wald’s interests, writings and accomplishments:
The Harvard Gazette's obituary for Wald gives information about his life and work: http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/1997/04.17/GeorgeWaldNobel.html
A memoir by a student of Wald's contains more detail about his life and accomplishments:
November 18, 1906 — April 12, 1997
By John E. Dowling"
It is available on the website of the National Academies Press at http://www.nap.edu/html/biomems/gwald.html
The Nobel prize website at http://nobelprize.org/medicine/laureates/1967/index.html and the Ashley Montagu Resolution website at http://MontaguNOCIRCpetition.org also inform.
George's son Elijah's website at http://elijahwald.com offers some intimate glimpses from within the family. My thanks and gratitude to Elijah for sharing.
P.O. Box 323
VanLewis (at) post (dot) harvard (dot) edu
Florida native Van Lewis attended Harvard College as a student of Nobel laureate biologist, George Wald in 1961 and 1962. As a result of his biology and anthropology studies there Lewis became an early and active opponent of mutilating the genital organs of male minors, and with his brother was jailed in Florida's capital city, on 17 December, 1970, for peacefully protesting, on the public sidewalk in front of Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, against infant circumcision. Since then he has earned his living in Florida's seafood industry, helped the mother of their children raise two girls, and become Legislative Liaison and President of Florida's Chapter of the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers http://NoCirc.org, a Certified Educator for Doctors Opposing Circumcision http://DoctorsOpposingCircumcision.org, and an active participant/protester in the Stop Infant Circumcision Society http://StopInfantCircumcision.org.
 Letter from Van Lewis to George Wald, 5 August 1975. Original in Wald's papers in the Harvard Archives.
(See http://oasis.harvard.edu/html/hua02000frames.html for an extensive listing of Wald's archived papers.)
 Letter from George Wald to William Shawn, 18 August 1975. Copy in Wald’s papers in the Harvard Archives.
 Letter from William Shawn to George Wald, 8 September 1975. Original in Wald’s papers in the Harvard Archives.
 Private Correspondence, 10 July 2001.
 Letter from Ronald Goldman to George Wald, 22 December 1992. Copy provided by Ronald Goldman.
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