Most people seem to know what a vasectomy is. But few know its full, complicated historyby Georgia Grainger / April 22, 2020 / Leave a comment
Most people seem to know what a vasectomy is—but do you remember where you learned what it is? For most people, I find the answer is “no.” It’s just part of general knowledge that most adults in Britain seem to have, that vasectomy is a minor surgical procedure to sterilise men, and that it can sometimes be reversible. Other contraceptive knowledge that most adults are likely to have some idea of in Britain would be, for example: when abortion was legalised (1967 for England, Scotland and Wales; last year in Northern Ireland); that the Pill became widespread in the 1960s; that there were health issues with the early IUDs; and that women have had to fight for their rights to control their reproduction for the best part of a century. But do you know when vasectomies became available on the NHS? Or when the first one was performed? Do you know that there were backlashes against it? Typically, the answer is again no, and that’s where I come in.
I’m doing my PhD on the “Social History of Vasectomies in Britain,” looking at how this sterilising procedure went from being invented in the 1850s, to being considered illegal in the 1930s and 1940s, to being provided widely on the NHS in 1974, to being “general knowledge” now. Buckle up—and men, you may want to cross your legs.
To give a little background before the juicy bits, vasectomy first came about through testing on dogs as an alternative to castration, and then was performed on humans from the 1880s onwards. That’s before effective anaesthetic (patients likely had cocaine, opium and alcohol to dull the pain), and before proper hygiene practices and antibiotics. It didn’t take off quickly.
There was little understanding of exactly what would happen when the vas deferens was severed at the time, but it was thought that on reabsorbing the sperm (this does happen), the body would get extra “life force” and a man would have more energy or have any erectile dysfunction cured (this does not happen). A partial vasectomy—where they cut and cauterise or tie one vas deferens but the other is left intact—was thought to cure impotency by, I guess, making the remaining teste extra powerful? Anyway, these were generally…