In the 20th century, during World War II and the onset of the Cold War, circumcision occurred more often among non-Jewish families in America, according Dr. Fleiss of the University of Southern California Medical Center. Due to the unsanitary conditions of war, uncircumcised soldiers often developed serious infections around the foreskin. More often than not, American soldiers sent into battle uncircumcised returned home without foreskins. New recruits were also expected to be circumcised.
Joseph Zoske is an independent health care consultant in Albany, New York, who says routine medical circumcision is rooted in neither science nor medicine. Zoske claims the practice grew out of the mid-19th century hysteria and superstition about masturbation.
"Given the sexual mores of that time, child-rearing practices, and the lack of understanding of disease etiology, masturbation was blamed for a litany of ills," he wrote in article in the Journal of Men's Studies. "Insanity, epilepsy, blindness, and even death were its feared results." Circumcision was viewed as a "treatment" for these ailments and was performed as a way to control young boys' masturbating habits. The popularity of the procedure peaked between 1850 and 1879, he said.
Zoske says it took about 100 years for a different viewpoint to emerge; one that largely stemmed from British physician Douglas Gairdner who in 1949 published an article entitled "The Fate of the Foreskin."
"For the first time, a direct challenge was made to the practice of routine circumcision," Zoske explained. "Physicians were encouraged to delay circumcision for two to three years, until its 'minor advantages' could be better assessed."
Gairdner's cautionary message was recognized within the British National Health Service, and circumcision rates dropped dramatically in England. In the United States, however, it would take another generation before alternative ideas took root in the psyches of the medical establishment and parents.