A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did Renaldus Columbus discover the clitoris in 1559?

September 6, 1991

Dear Cecil:

In a recent review of Thomas Laqueur's Making Sex I read that Renaldus Columbus discovered the clitoris in 1559. I can't make sense of this. Wasn't it right under his nose the whole time, so to speak? Who discovered the penis? And who was Renaldus Columbus, anyway? Any relation to Chris?

Cecil replies:

You haven't grasped the totality of this, Mark. Renaldus was born in 1516. Can you imagine a guy who proclaims to the world his discovery of the clitoris … at age 43? Incidentally, he apparently died that same year. Too bad. They say his wife was about to broach the subject of foreplay.

But seriously. According to Thomas Laqueur, Columbus, AKA Matteo Realdo Colombo, was a lecturer in surgery at the University of Padua, Italy. (Whether he was related to Christopher Columbus I don't know.) In 1559 he published a book called De re anatomica in which he described the "seat of woman's delight." He concluded, "since no one has discerned these projections and their workings, if it is permissible to give names to things discovered by me, it should be called the love or sweetness of Venus."

Columbus's claim was disputed, but not because it was off the wall. On the contrary, Columbus's successor at Padua, Gabriel Fallopius (name ring any bells?), said he was the first to discover the clitoris. A semblance of sanity was restored when Kasper Bartholin, a 17th century Danish anatomist, dismissed both claims, saying the clitoris had been widely known since the second century. By this one assumes he means "known to male anatomists." It is safe to say women had discovered it a good while before that.

Lest you think such foolishness was confined to the 16th century, recall Freud's bizarre claim that women had two kinds of orgasms, clitoral and vaginal — an idea not fully put to rest until the work of Masters and Johnson. More recently there was the hubbub about the Grafenberg spot, which briefly threatened to replace the clitoris as the seat of female sexual excitement. In some ways we know more about what happened in the universe's first tenth of a second than we do about what goes on in the interval between "Your place or mine?" and deciding who sleeps on the wet spot.

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