Happy New Year 2017 – the centenary of intersex!


The 1915 volume of the Biologischen Centralblatt is available here: https://archive.org/stream/biologischeszent35rose#page/n7/mode/2up

A happy New Year everyone! Whatever 2017 will bring, it definitely is the centenary of the term “intersex” in English, so let’s start the new year with a post on this question. The term was coined by the German biologist Richard Goldschmidt (see Satzinger 2009 for background), with a range of dates for its first usage (1901, 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918, “1916/18” and 1923). A Google books search even seems to suggest that the term “intersexuality” was around in 1854, but as one can quickly see that is simply an error (the book is in fact from 1954).

In fact, it was in 1915 that Goldschmidt published an article (in German) where he introduced the terms Intersexe for certain moths having the attributes of both sexes, and Intersexualität for the existence of a spectrum of bodily sex, or in the terminology of his time, that there were many sexuelle Zwischenstufen (see https://intersex.hypotheses.org/4121).

So erscheint es mit notwendig, für die hier behandelte Erscheinung eine andere Bezeichnung einzuführen. Ich werde in Zukunft die sexuellen Zwischenstufen als Intersexe bezeichnen und von mänlichen oder weiblichen Intersexen reden, je nachdem es sich um Männchen auf dem Weg zur Weiblichkeit oder Weibchen auf dem Weg zur Männlichkeit handelt; die Erscheinung selbst hieße dann Intersexualität.

Goldschmidt 1915, 566; https://archive.org/stream/biologischeszent35rose#page/566/mode/1up

It was only in 1917, however, that Goldschmidt also introduced the new term into the English-speaking world – significantly, in the first issue of the newly-founded journal Endocrinology. Here, sexuelle Zwischenstufen was rendered “sex-intergrades”, and Intersexualität became “intersexuality”.

Google books (specifically, the ngram viewer) suggests that both terms were accepted quickly – although they are of course rare terms, they jumped roughly to the frequency enjoyed today within a few years after Goldschmidt published his article:

The term ‘intersex’ established itself mainly in medical usage, but also was adopted by groups and societies like the “Intersex Society of North American” (http://www.isna.org/).  Crucially, however, what looks like a success of the new term did not mean that the received terminology of “hermaphroditism” and “pseudo-hermaphroditism” was replaced by it. Another quicky check with the Ngram viewer suggests that the terms continued to be in use (note, though, the decrease around 1920 – indicating an impact of Goldschmidt?):

So even a century after the term ‘intersexuality’ was coined by Goldberg, ‘hermaphroditism’ and ‘pseudo-hermaphroditism’ are still around; indeed, both terms are still found in the 2016 version of the IDC (http://apps.who.int/classifications/icd10/browse/2016/en#/Q56.1).



Primary sources

Richard Goldschmidt, ‘Vorläufige Mitteilung über weitere Versuche zur Vererbung und Bestimmung des Geschlechts’, in: Biologische Centralblatt 35 (1915), 565-570. https://archive.org/stream/biologischeszent35rose#page/565/mode/1up

Richard Goldschmidt, ‘Intersexuality and the endocrine aspect of sex’, in: Endocrinology 1 (1917), 433-456. http://press.endocrine.org/doi/abs/10.1210/endo-1-4-433


Helga Satzinger, ‘Racial purity, stable genes, and sex difference. Gender in the making of genetic concepts by Richard Goldschmidt and Fritz Lenz, 1916-1936’, in: The Kaiser Wilhelm Society under National Socialism, ed. Susanne Heim, Carola Sachse and Mark Walker, Cambridge 2009, 145-170. https://iris.ucl.ac.uk/iris/publication/77073/1

Suggested citation: Christof Rolker, Happy New Year 2017 – the centenary of intersex!, in Männlich-weiblich-zwischen, 01/01/2017, https://intersex.hypotheses.org/4204. Lizenz: CC BY-SA 4.0 [http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/]. Letzter Aufruf: 01/12/2023.

Christof Rolker

Prof. Dr. Christof Rolker, Historiker an der Universität Bamberg.

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Christof Rolker

Prof. Dr. Christof Rolker, Historiker an der Universität Bamberg.

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