Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Conflict about the clitoris: Colombo versus Fallopio

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

Anatomical theatre of Padua. Photo by Marco Bisello on Wikimedia.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
– Oscar Wilde

The clitoris, a female genital structure anatomically homologous to the penis, was known to the ancients. In 540 BC, the Greek Hipponax made one of the earliest references to it. It was not mentioned by Hippocrates,1 but Arabic, Persian, and Roman writers noted it. The Persian Ibn Sina—known in the west as Avicenna—wrote of the clitoris in his medical textbook circa 1025.1

From the time of Avicenna until the mid-sixteenth century, doctors seem to have forgotten the clitoris. In 1559, Realdo Colombo’s De Re Anatomica was published a few months after his death. He stated in his text that he “discovered” the clitoris. He also, correctly, called it an organ of sexual pleasure, “the seat of woman’s delight.” Gabriele Fallopio, in his Observationes Anatomicae (1561), claimed to be the “discoverer,” and more or less accused the now-dead Colombo of plagiarism.2

The clitoris3 develops in the embryo from an undifferentiated bud of tissue, the genital tubercule, in the absence of androgens. If there is androgenic stimulation, a penis develops. The only visible part of the clitoris on physical examination is the glans. It is the most erogenous zone in the human body. The glans itself probably contains more than 10,000 nerve endings. Because the clitoris is not needed for reproduction to occur, it is possible that because it produces pleasure (as distinct from having a strictly reproductive function), it had been ignored by “pretentious phallocrats” uncomfortable with female sexuality. Vesalius tried to help by suggesting that the clitoris is only found in hermaphrodites.

The medical literature contains at least one suggestion1 that Colombo and Fallopio did not engage in a “ridiculous battle” for the priority of the “discovery” of something women have always known about and which did not need to be “discovered.” Fallopio, in fact, mentioned that the Greeks, as well as Avicenna, wrote about the clitoris.1 Clearly then neither Colombo nor Fallopio was the first to describe the clitoris—“[in] Renaissance Europe, the clitoris was not newly discovered, only newly legitimised as an anatomical entity by male anatomists competing for reputation and priority.”4


  1. Odile Fillod. “History.” Clit’info. https://odilefillod.wixsite.com/clitoris/histoire.
  2. Vincent DiMarino and Hubert Lepidi. Anatomic study of the clitoris and the bulbo-clitoral organ, 2014th ed. Marseille, France: Aix-Marseille University, UER Medicine.
  3. “Clitoris.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clitoris.
  4. Mark Stringer and Ines Becker. “Colombo and the clitoris.” European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology 2010, vol. 151, no. 2. doi.org/10.1016/j.ejogrb.2010.04.007.

HOWARD FISCHER, MD, was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Winter 2023



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