Intersex Day of Remembrance: Adélaïde Herculine alias Alexina alias Camille alias Abel Barbin


Cover of the French edition (Foucault 1978).

Today is the birthday of Adélaïde Herculine Barbin – celebrated as Intersex Day of Remembrance around the world. Barbin was raised as a girl in 1838 but declared male at the age of 30, and committed suicide soon afterwards. It is very plausible to assume that the medical enquiry, the media coverage and the (unwanted) change of legal gender played a crucial role in Barbin’s decision to commit suicide. Having, involuntarily, become a cause célèbre already in his/her lifetime, Barbin’s sex and gender have continued to attract both scholarly and public attention. His/her biography is mainly known from the autobiography written shortly before the suicide; it was published first in 1872 and again, more than a century later, by Michel Foucault.

“Remembrance” is tied to remembering names, so my contribution today is dedicated to Barbin’s names. As Fabienne Imlinger in her paper at the Zwischen conference observed, the multiplicity of Barbin’s names (and the association of the story with Foucault’s rather than Barbin’s name) is quite significant. On a more mundane level, the multiple names continue to confuse readers, and are likely to do so in the future – for example, Wikipedia entries in different languages vary as to which name they use.

Yet “Remembrance” for me as a historian is also a question of getting the textual history right, so let me first comment briefly on the transmission of the autobiography.

The Mémoires: manuscript, editions, translations

The autobiography was written in Paris in 1868, after the gender change and shortly before Barbin’s suicide. The original manuscript is lost; one often reads that Foucault “discovered the autobiography in the archives” (this is how his book was advertised) but this in fact refers to Tardieu’s book. There are quite a few copies of the latter in Paris libraries (see, so I assume that the “archives” Foucault searched was the rare books room of one of these libraries.

In any case it was Tardieu, who printed the text as we know it, asserting that he only had omitted a few passages (Tardieu 1872, 49). I assume that it was Tardieu who eliminated most proper names in Barbin’s account, and it was certainly him who gave it the title “Mémoires d’Alexina B.” (Tardieu 1872, 48). He seems to have possessed the original manuscript already in 1868 (Goujon 1869, 4 n. 1) and is the last owner I know of. His book appeared in 1872, a second edition (more widely spread) in 1874. Having “rediscovered” it, Foucault published Tardieu’s version of the Mémoires first in 1978 together with other materials relating to Barbin’s case; the English translation appeared in 1980. An important difference between the French and the English version is the addition of the famous introduction (much more widely read and quoted than the rest of the book) on “true sex”. This introduction was absent from the original French version, and apparently Foucault only wrote it in preparation of the English translation. However, he also published a slightly different French version of the introduction in 1980. (See the bibliography below for full bibliographical details.) Translations of the Mémoires into other languages are, as far as I can see, always translations of Foucault’s edition.

Adélaïde Herculine alias Adélaïde-Herminie alias Alexina alias Camille alias Abel

So what are the multiple (given) names of Barbin? At birth, she was called Adélaïde Herculine, and this was the name officially registered. The name Alexina, which Foucault used to refer to Barbin (and which appears on the cover of the French, but not the English version of his book) was not officially registered, but apparently used by her friends and family when she was young. It is also used by Tardieu and one of the medical records he quotes (Tardieu 1872, 49 and 130-133); in thew same report, the birth certificate is said to refer to Barbin as Adélaïde-Herminie (Tardieu 1872, 130 n. 1), but this seems a mere error. Abel was the male name given to her, and officially registred, at the occasion of the change of legal gender in 1868; perhaps it was chosen (by whom? we don’t know) because of its similarity to Adélaïde. Yet none of these names figures in the autobiography, where both the narrator and his/her environment use the name Camille. Equally importantly, it is an unisex name; unlike the English name Camille today, it was not rare as a male name in 19th c. France (see, for example, the German Wikipedia entry). It has sometimes been suggested that the name was only introduced by Tardieu, but this seems unlikely; he would have had to change more than the name do do this, as the name Camille is indeed commented upon in the autobiography itself. According to Barbin, the physician who performed the inspection that finally led to the change of gender observed that the name was fitting for its very ambiguity; the passage also suggests that the name was used from Barbin’s birth (ed. Tardieu 1871, 120):

« Franchement, me dit le bon docteur, votre marraine a eu la main heureuse en vous appelant Camille ! Donnez-moi la main, mademoiselle; avant peu, je l’espère, nous vous appellerons autrement. En vous laissant, je vais me rendre à l’évêché. Je ne sais ce que décidera Monseigneur, mais je doute qu’il vous permette de retourner à L… De ce côté-là, votre position est perdue; elle n’est pas tolérable. Ce qui me surpasse, c’est que mon confrère de L… se soit compromis jusqu’à vous y laisser aussi longtemps, sachant ce que vous êtes. Quant à Madame P…, sa naïveté ne s’explique pas.» Il adressa ensuite quelques paroles d’encouragement à ma pauvre mère, dont la stupeur était à son comble, « Vous avez perdu votre fille, c’est vrai, lui dit-il; mais vous retrouvez un fils que vous n’attendiez pas. »


tr. from Foucault 1980, 78 (Source:



Sources and literature

Michel Foucault, Herculine Barbin, dite Alexina B., [Paris] 1978.

Michel Foucault, Herculine Barbin, being the recently discovered memoirs of a nineteenth-century French hermaphrodite. A scandal at the convent, New York 1980.

Michel Foucault, ‘Le vrai sexe’, in Arcadie 27, no. 323 (1980), 617–625.

Étienne Goujon, Étude d’un cas d’hermaphrodisme bisexuel imparfait chez l’homme, Paris 1869.

Ambroise Tardieu, Question médico-légale de l’identité dans ses rapports avec les vices de conformation des organes sexuels: contenant les souvenirs et impressions d’un individu dont le sexe avait été méconnu, Paris 1872, 1874. and, respectively


For a pdf version, see here: Rolker 2016 – Barbin.pdf.


Suggested citation: Christof Rolker, Intersex Day of Remembrance: Adélaïde Herculine alias Alexina alias Camille alias Abel Barbin, in Männlich-weiblich-zwischen, 08/11/2016, Lizenz: CC BY-SA 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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