Down Under

You have to admire surgeon Helen O’Connell for dedication. Always dissatisfied with what she had learned in the anatomy textbooks while studying to qualify as a doctor, she eventually ordered up ten fresh corpses and started to dissect them.

I’m not sure how you do that. Is there an order form? Can you do it on line? Paypal? Because her requirements were quite specific — the bodies she wanted had to be of healthy young women. What had been bugging O’Connell, a specialist urology surgeon, was the anatomy of the clitoris. She was sure that current medical “knowledge” was just plain wrong.

anatomy modelOne of the features of the supply of bodies for dissection is that young, intact ones are quite uncommon, particularly young women, who are less likely to die in accidents or by suicide. Standard textbook descriptions had been largely based on the anatomy of women who had died in old age, suffering the usual decline in tissue mass which affects everyone. While a man’s sexual equipment is on the outside, and is identifiable even if it’s shrunken with age, a woman’s becomes much more difficult to map out correctly. It was only by working on young corpses that O’Connell was able to get to the truth.

According to O’Connell’s dissections, the external tip of the clitoris, or glans, connects on the inside to a pyramid-shaped mass of erectile tissue, far larger than previously described. The “body” of the clitoris, which connects to the glans, is about as big as the first joint of your thumb. It has two arms up to 9 centimetres long that flare backwards into the body, lying just a few millimetres from the ends of the muscles that run up the inside of the thigh. Also extending from the body of the clitoris, and filling the space between its arm, are two bulbs, one on each side of the vaginal cavity.

(The penis also has bulbs of erectile tissue at its root that extend into the body cavity, but “the bulbs are more prominent in females”, O’Connell says.)

The dissections also revealed a network of nerves which is directly connected to the clitoris, spreading much more widely than any previous investigation had suggested. This was important to O’Connell’s job as a urology surgeon, because bladder or urethra surgery in both men and women has to try to avoid damage to nerves so that sexual functions are not impaired. Naturally enough, prior to her work, surgeons were well-informed about how to work on men, because a man’s sexual performance is so important to his well-being. Did I mention that the vast majority of surgeons are men?

For the layman, what we learn from Helen O’Connell’s work is that the clitoris is much larger and more important than previously believed, with large bulbs straddling the inside of the vagina, and its network of nerves speads all the way down the insides of the thighs. Now is that not useful knowledge?

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