Pharaohs on the Operating Table: Race, Sex, and Medicine in Semicolonial Egypt

You are here

  Wednesday, October 28, 2020
  12:15 - 1:30 p.m.
  Stephens Hall
  Taylor M. Moore, PhD, UC Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of History, UC Santa Barbara

In the late 1920s, Egyptian gynecologist Naguib Mahfouz dissected the body of a young woman named Henhenit. The urinary fistula discovered between her vagina and bladder, he believed, served as evidence that gynecological diseases plagued women from “time immemorial.” Henhenit’s pelvic region, while well-preserved, was over two thousand years old. Despite their age, her womb and the bones encasing it were the keys to a fertile reproductive future for the newly independent nation. Yet, Henhenit was not the only Egyptian female whose body was under scientific scrutiny.
As Egyptian medical students examined skeletal remains in their lecture halls, anthropologists conducted ethnographic and anthropometric surveys using the bodies of living women in Upper Egypt. The living Upper Egyptian woman, dubbed la femme pharonique, constituted a unique scientific specimen for early twentieth-century scientists in Egypt and abroad—a ‘living fossil.’ They hypothesized that her skeletal structure, particularly the size and shape of her pelvic bone, was an atavistic trait characteristic of ancient Egyptian women. These women could be observed in the flesh in their ‘natural environment’ of Upper Egypt, a region deemed—much like Henhenit’s body—isolated and immune to the passing of time.
This talk draws on insights from science and technology studies and critical race theory to explore how and why the bodies of Upper Egyptian women, both living and deceased, became specimen of scientific inquiry in museums, dissection halls, and in ‘the field’ of global science. I argue that the pelvic bones and labor power of Upper Egyptian women took on new scientific and cultural meanings in the first half of the twentieth century as scientists and social reformers ‘returned to the womb’ seeking answers to the “puzzle” of Egyptian racial origins, and neo-Malthusian hopes to decrease the country’s infant mortality rate.

Taylor M. Moore is a University of California Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow in the History Department at UC Santa Barbara. Her research lies at the intersections of critical race studies, decolonial/postcolonial histories of science, and decolonial materiality studies. Her manuscript-in-preparation, Superstitious Women: Race, Magic, and Medicine in Egypt, uses modern Egyptian amulets as an archive to reconstruct the magical and vernacular medical life-worlds of peasant women healers, and their critical role developing medico-anthropological expertise in Egypt from 1880-1950. Taylor’s work is invested in illuminating the occult(ed) networks, economies, and actors whose bodies and labor are generally rendered invisible in Eurocentric histories of global science.

Center for Middle Eastern Studies
University of California, Berkeley
340 Stephens Hall, Berkeley, CA  94720-2314



© Copyright UC Regents.  All Rights Reserved.

Privacy | Accessibility | Nondiscrimination