Men, Masculinity and Medicine

While there is a great deal of literature dealing with the medicalization of gender and sexual identity, most studies examine femininity and female bodies. Indeed, Rosenfeld and Faircloth argue that, “in medicalization research, gender seems to mean womanhood.”[1] Their edited collection, Medicalized Masculinities begins to fill this gap, yet far more research is needed to provide a broader exploration of the historical construction of masculinity in the face of illness.  The current state of research presumes that “…men’s bodies properly function as the ‘prototype’ for all human bodies [but this] ignores the gendered nature of men’s bodies and health.”[2]  My current research seeks to address this issue.  It explores the role of the Canadian medical profession in shaping ideas about masculinity and male bodies in order to balance and extend our understanding of medicine, gender and health.  I am examining the scientific/medical and social/cultural history of masculinity and gender roles in Canada from 1850 to 1950 with particular interest in the ways that medical discourse shaped ideas about gender and sexuality over time.  Central to my exploration is the power of the medical profession’s ability to shape “proper” roles for men (and women) and the ways that social and cultural literature simultaneously appropriated and reinforced those constructions.  Examining the extent to which this occurred and the convergences of medical discourse with other important discourses of the period will allow me to trace how medical discourse functions in multiple “expert” environments.  The impact that those discourses have on modern life is central to understanding how perceptions of masculinity, both medical and popular, are rooted in biology as well as in society and culture.    I contend that exploring how this process occurs will help us to assess today’s treatment plans and provides a basis for understanding why and how male illnesses and male dysfunctions have become linked to perceptions of health and happiness that are presented in “public” discourses like those of religion, consumer culture and the law.

Connected to the above project are two related studies.  One explores the ways that the medical profession understood heart disease in the period between 1950 and 1970.  While constructed primarily as a health problem for men, there is no question that this was a gendered issue.   As such, I am exploring the ways that the medical profession in Canada and the United States discussed heart disease in professional medical journals and comparing the ways that heart disease was discussed in popular culture, paying particular attention to advertisements for health products to manage the symptoms of the “Type A” man.[3]  The other project will explore this phenomenon from a transnational perspective as I will work with Dr. Antje Kampf, who is at Universitätsmedizin der Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz.  We will compare preventative campaigns that were undertaken in key eras (i.e. WWI and WWII) to understand the history of heart disease in Canada and Germany.

The other masculinity project that I am working on (“Science or Sin?: Medical and Religious Prescriptions of Masculinity for Youth in Mid-Twentieth Century Canada”) deals with the ways that the medical profession in Canada has played an important role in defining and regulating gender and sexuality. In matters related to reproduction (childbirth, birth control and abortion), the medical discourse has been at the heart of determining appropriate roles for women. However, we know much less about how the medical profession has constructed masculinity in mid-twentieth century Canada and how that medical discourse has been reproduced in other contexts. Chris O’Shea has explored the connection between medical science and home-health advice literature in Canada between 1870 and 1914 and notes that the early advice literature drew heavily on the medicalization of masculinity and male disease. However, many religious advice manuals were also published in the mid-twentieth century. Did medical science continue to play an important role in the Christian view of masculinity in this period? How was the medical discourse on masculinity “reproduced” in these advice manuals? This paper explores the connections and differences between the discourses of medical science and Christianity for Canadian youth in this period. The advice literature was presented as “scientific,” yet the prescriptions in advice manuals for young Canadian men harkened back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the same time the medical discourse on masculinity expanded its focus on male disease. These differences in the medical and religious discourses point to the paradox that exists between the prescriptions of masculinity in this period – a contradiction that was at times difficult for Canadian youth to navigate.  I anticipate that this work will appear in my co-edited collection (with Wendy Mitchinson and Barbara Brookes), Gender and Health: Histories.


[1] Rosenfeld, Dana and Christoper A. Faircloth, Medicalized Masculinities, Philadephia: Temple University Press, 2006, p. 1.

[2] Ibid., p. 9.

[3] I am drawing on the work of Elianne Riska here.  See “From Type A man to the hardy man: masculinity and health,” Sociology of Health & Illness, 24, 3 (2002).