Herculine Barbin

Herculine Barbin (1838-1868) was a French hermaphrodite who was treated as a female at birth but was later redesignated a male after an affair and physical examination.


Most of what we know about Barbin comes from her later memoirs. Herculine Adélaîde Barbin was born in Saint-Jean-d'Angély in France in 1838. She was regarded as a girl and raised as such but later renamed herself Alexina. Her family was poor but she gained a charity scholarship to study in the school of an Ursuline convent.

According to her account, she had a crush on an aristocratic female friend in school. She regarded herself as unattractive but sometimes slipped into her friend's room at night and was sometimes punished for that. However, her studies were successful and in 1856, at the age of seventeen she was sent to Le Chateau to study to become a teacher. There she fell in love with one of the teachers.

Although Barbin was in puberty, she had not begun to menstruate and remained flat chested. She shaved her upper lips, cheeks and arms.

In 1857 Barbin received a post of an assistant teacher in a girl's school. She fell in love with another teacher, Sara, and Barbin demanded that only she should dress her. Her ministrations turned into caresses and they became lovers. Eventually rumors about their affair begun to circulate.

Barbin began to suffer unexpected pains. When a doctor examined her, he was shocked and asked that she should be sent away but she stayed.

Eventually devoutly Catholic Barbin confessed to Jean-François-Anne Landriot, the Bishop of La Rochelle. He asked her permission to break the confessional silence in order to send for a doctor to examine her. When Dr. Chesnet did so in 1860, he discovered that even if Barbin had a small vagina, she was bodily masculine and had a very small penis with the testicles inside her body. In modern terms, she had "male pseudohermaphroditism".

Later legal decision determined that Barbin became officially male. He left his lover and his job, changed his name to Abel Barbin and was briefly mentioned in the press. He moved to Paris where he lived in poverty and wrote his memoirs, reputedly as a part of a therapy.

In February 1868, concierge of Barbin's house in rue de l'École-de-Médecine found him dead in his home. He had committed suicide by gas of his coal gas stove. His memoirs were found beside his bed.

Memoirs and modern commentaries

Dr. Regnier reported the death, recovered the memoirs and performed an autopsy. Later he gave the memoirs to Auguste Ambroise Tardieu who later published excerpts of it. The excerpts were translated to English in 1980.

Michel Foucault discovered the memoirs in the French Department of Public Hygiene. He had the journals republished with his commentary. Judith Butler refers to the Foucault's work and the journals in Gender Trouble and Jeffrey Eugenides in his book Middlesex treats concurrent themes, as does Virginia Woolf in her book, .

Barbin appears as a character in the play A Mouthful of Birds by Caryl Churchill. Barbin also appears as a character in the play Hidden: A Gender by Kate Bornstein.

Sources and further reading

External links

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