The Tragic Story Of Herculine Barbin, An Intersex Person Who Puzzled 19th-Century France

The Tragic Story Of Herculine Barbin, An Intersex Person Who Puzzled 19th-Century France

In this not so ideal world, survival is hard. Every day we are faced with new obstacles that diverts us from our goals. If we are different from the rest of the people surrounding us, they judge and ostracize us for our choices. No matter what we do, we will always be compared and downgraded. That is unfortunately the truth. Nevertheless, we strive towards our dreams and towards success. A woman named Herculine Barbin is one such example. Herculine lived a normal and quiet life when she was young. When she turned 21, a pain in her lower groin forced her to visit the doctor. That one visit changed her life forever. Here’s the unusual story that left doctors baffled and changed a young woman’s life forever.

Part I: Herculine Barbin was born in 1838 in France.

Herculine Barbin was born in France
Image Source: Francoise Gaujour/flickr

Herculine Adélaïde Barbin was born in Saint-Jean-d’Angély in France in 1838. Determined as female at birth, her family often called her Alexina. Even though Barbin was born in a poor family, she was lucky enough to earn a scholarship that allowed her to study in the school of an Ursuline convent. While in the convent, Barbin found herself having feelings towards an aristocratic female friend in school. She sometimes slipped into her friend’s room at night, to which she was often caught and punished. Barbin considered herself to be an unattractive woman. At the age of 17, her studies prevailed and she was sent to Le Chateau to study to become a teacher. Even though Barbin was of age to experience puberty, she did not begin menstruating and her body showed no signs of growth towards womanhood.

“My features had a certain hardness that one could not help noticing” –  she wrote in her memoir.

At the age of 21, Barbin started to feel an excruciating pain under her lower groin. Since the pain was concurring, she decided to visit a doctor in order to determine the cause.

Herculine Barbin
Image Source: The Casas-Rodríguez/flickr

When the persistent pain in her lower groin was too much to bare, Barbin decided to consult a doctor. Little did she know that the visit would turn her world upside down. Barbin went to see Dr. Chesnet in hopes of relief but left with an a shocking diagnosis: she was in fact a man. While Dr. Chesnet was examining her, he discovered that Barbin had a small vag*na, as well as a very small pen*s and testicles inside her body.

Part II: In reality, she was both sexes at once.

Herculine Barbin
Wikimedia/Screengrab via goodreads

Barbin was born both sexes at once. During the mid 19th century, the term hermaphroditism was not popular in provincial France. Dr. Chesnet could barely contain his surprise during the physical examination. The short trip to the doctor Barbin decided to take was followed by a carousel of probing examinations by multiple doctors. According to the detailed medical records left by the doctors, she possessed a labia majora, a “feminine urethra,” a vagina (on the right) and an imperforate penis along with testicles within each side of Barbin’s labia. Since she had more male characteristics than that of a female, doctors determined Barbin to be a man.

Barbin’s examiners arranged for her to change her legal status to male.

Herculine Barbin
Image Source: Tekniska museet/flickr

The doctors who examined Barbin wanted her to legally change her status as a male. In order to do so, they set up the required paperwork and even suggested she change her name to “Abel” Barbin to receive masculinity. When Barbin’s mother learned of the news, she was astonished and felt sympathetic for her daughter. Not so long after that, their relationship faded away. Barbin changed her appearance to fit into the society once again. On her first visit to the church as “Abel”, hardly anyone recognized her due to her clothing and new masculine appearance. Then came the gossiping, and she soon became the talk of the town. In her memoir, she wrote:

“They saw me as a real Don Juan, saying that I had brought shame and dishonor everywhere, and profited brazenly from my situation in order to engage secretly in love affairs with women.”

Part III continued on Page 2.

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