As It Happens

Revolutionary war hero Casimir Pulaski was likely intersex, researchers say

A Polish-born Revolution War hero credited with saving George Washington's life was most likely intersex, new research suggests. 

The general was baptized a boy and lived as a man — but his skeletal remains are distinctly female

Gen. Casimir Pulaski is considered a hero of the American Revolution. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
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A Polish-born Revolutionary War hero credited with saving George Washington's life was most likely intersex, new research suggests. 

Gen. Casimir Pulaski — known as "the Father of the American cavalry" — was baptized as a son and lived his entire life as a man, with typically male biological characteristics such as facial hair and male pattern baldness. But his skeletal remains are distinctly female. 

This has lead researchers to conclude that Pulaski was likely intersex, meaning he was among the estimated 1.7 per cent of people who are born with a combination of male and female sex characteristics. 

"It doesn't change anything we know about Pulaski's accomplishments and his legacy, and it doesn't diminish him in any way," Virginia Hutton Estabrook, a Georgia Southern University anthropologist involved in the research, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"But what it does do is ... potentially give some representation of intersex individuals who have not really been represented in the historical record much."

Who was Pulaski?

Pulaski was born in Warsaw in 1745. As a teenager, he fought for Polish independence from the Russians, and was exiled for his efforts. 

He fled to Paris, where he met American revolutionary Benjamin Franklin, who convinced him to come back to America and join the colonies fighting for independence from Britain. 

People celebrate during 67th Annual Pulaski Day Parade on Oct. 3, 2004, in New York City. (Kathleen Voege/Getty Images)

He served in George Washington's army and helped form the American cavalry. Some historians credit him with saving Washington's life in the 1777 Battle of Brandywine.

Today, he is celebrated as a war hero with a holiday in Chicago and a parade in New York City. 

Mystery of his remains 

Pulaski died in 1779 at the age of 34 from a wound sustained at the Siege of Savannah.

For many years, historical records indicated he was buried at sea. But oral history maintained he was buried in an unmarked grave at a plantation in Savannah, Ga., which served as a hospital during the siege. 

In 1854, those remains were unearthed from the plantation and moved to Savannah's Monterey Square, where a Pulaski monument was erected a year later.

"But this had been met with a lot of skepticism at the time that continued through the 20th century," Estabrook said.

So in the 1990s, researchers exhumed the bones in order to put the debate to rest once and for all. 

An image of Pulaski is shown on the 16.5-metre monument to his memory on Monterey Square in Savannah, Ga. His bones lie beneath the monument in a metal box. (Stephen Morton/Associated Press)

"There was this idea that they were going to take out these remains that were inside of a metal box inside of the monument and actually figure out who this was — whether this was Pulaski or not," Estabrook said.

"And that's where they hit the first roadblock."

The skeleton was the right height and age for Pulaski, and it showed signs of injuries that correlated with those Pulaski sustained on the battlefield. 

There was just one problem. The skeleton — especially the shape and size of the pelvis — indicated the remains were female.

"Not knowing who this is by any context, I would definitely put this individual into the female column of skeletal remains," Estrabrook said. 

Unable to get an adequate DNA match at the time, researchers dubbed the study inconclusive.

But recently, Estabrook and her team decided to take another look at the remains using the modern genetic tools at their disposal. 

They were able to match the DNA from the remains to Pulaski's grandniece, whose body was exhumed from a grave in Poland. 

Now, after all these years, she and her colleagues have finally confirmed that the bones under the monument belong to the general. 

Intersex visibility 

But that doesn't mean Pulaski wasn't a man, Estabrook said. 

"This is where the sort of social science distinction between sex and gender is actually really important, because everything we know about Pulaski's lived existence as a person bopping through life is that he was baptized as the son of his parents, and recognized as masculine all through his life," Estabrook said.

"What's interesting is that the skeletal remains that we have are showing that there was clearly something else going on with the secondary sex patterns of bone development in his body."

Some intersex people may have ambiguous genitalia, leading doctors to perform what advocates say are unnecessary and harmful sex-reassignment surgeries.

But intersex traits can also be largely invisible, such as hormones or chromosomes that don't fit neatly into the male/female binary. 

It's impossible to know whether Pulaski had visible intersex traits, or if he even knew he was intersex, Estabrook says.

"I don't think there was even a diagnosis at the time that would have necessarily described what was going on for Pulaski," she said. 

"At some level, it doesn't sort of change what he did. But at another level, it opens up his story to be a story that can be shared as a really relevant story to a group of people that don't necessarily find themselves well represented in the past."

A documentary about the research — called The General Was Female? — airs Monday on the Smithsonian Channel.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Virginia Hutton Estabrook produced by Sarah Jackson.