Seminar: ‘Unresolved Conflicts about Sex: Julian Huxley and the Progress of Sexology in Britain, 1916-1930’

Ross Brooks (Oxford Brookes) joined us in December 2018 to give a paper titled ‘Unresolved Conflicts about Sex: Julian Huxley and the Progress of Sexology in Britain, 1916-1930.’


This paper recovers a significant body of Julian Huxley’s early writings concerning the biology of sex determination, sex development, and sexual behaviour. Following the success of his studies relating to avian courtship, Huxley envisaged a more integrated approach to the study of animal behaviour which would synthesise the perspectives of both field observations and experimental zoology. In this endeavour he considered sex-related questions the most pressing, although, in practice, he failed to assimilate his own ornithological observations of avian courtship with the new biology of sex determination which was developing at a rapid pace in Germany and North America. Especially during his period as Fellow of New College and Senior Demonstrator in the Department of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at Oxford (1919-1925), the new biology of sex constituted one of Huxley’s leading interests and played a major role in establishing him as one of the twentieth-century’s most famous public intellectuals and popularisers of science and eugenics. It was largely because of Huxley that, after decades of resisting Continental sexology, the medico-scientific study of sex differences became both respectable and popular in Britain, although the subject remained inextricably entangled with Huxley’s eugenic vision of human progress.

The event, was co-hosted with Exeter’s Centre for Medical History and the Sexual Knowledge Unit.