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Penis captivus  (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

Penis captivus (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

During sexual intercourse it is normal for the muscles of a woman’s vagina to clamp on to the penis of her partner. There are rare instances when the vaginal muscles, exert an unusual firmer grip on the penis. In this condition, withdrawing the penis from the vagina, even after the man loses his erection, becomes impossible. This condition is known as “penis captivus“. It is a form of “vaginismus“. Some consider penis captivus as a mythical medical condition.

The following story shows that even medical men do not resist the temptation to pull another’s legs. It is also a lesson that demonstrates how easy it is to fool even scientific minds.

It began with a clash of personality between Dr. Theophilus Parvin and Sir William Osler. They were both editorial members of the Philadelphia Medical News.

Dr. Theophilus Parvin (1829-1898)

Dr. Theophilus Parvin (1829-1898)

Dr. Theophilus Parvin was a well-known American obstetrician and gynaecologist. In 1883, he held the Chair of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As one of the four editorial writers for the Philadelphia Medical News, he was responsible for obstetrics and gynecological matters.

Sir William Osler (1849-1919) in 1880.

Sir William Osler (1849-1919) in 1880.

Dr.  William Osler (later Sir William Osler), then 35-years-old, left his native Canada to take on the position of professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He served as one of the four editorial writers for the Philadelphia Medical News. In this capacity, he associated with Theophilus Parvin, and found him a snob.

At that time, Parvin published an editorial titled, “An Uncommon Form of Vaginismus.” It was published in the November 29, 1884 issue of the Philadelphia Medical News. Vaginismus is the painful, spasmodic contraction of the sphincter vaginae. Parvin’s editorial quoted from the Roman author Horace and ended with an 18th century reference to penis captivus.

After reading Parvin’s editorial, Osler felt that Parvin had used his influence as a board member to publish an article of no real importance to the general medical community. Osler decided to embarrass Parvin by writing a phony letter using his nom de plume “Egerton Y. Davis”.

The scheming Osler wrote his phony letter in Philadelphia. He then posted it to a friend in Ontario, Canada. From there it was re-posted to Parvin in Philadelphia.

The letter from the so-called Egerton Y. Davis described in detail an eyewitness modern account of “penis captivus”.

Parvin, delighted to receive the letter, dated 4th December, 1884 and postmarked Montreal, Canada, saw it as a case-report substantiating his thesis. It was a phenomenon, heretofore undocumented, of human couples unable to release themselves after coitus. He got this letter published immediately on December 13, 1884, under correspondence in the Philadelphia Medical News. The letter follows:

Dear Sir:

The reading of an admirably written and instructive editorial in the Philadelphia Medical News of 24th November 24 on forms of vaginismus, has reminded me of a case which bears out, in an extraordinary way, the statements therein contained. When in practice at Pentonville, England, I was sent for, about 11 P.M., by a gentleman whom, on my arriving at his home I found in a state of great perturbation, and the story he told me was briefly as follows:

At bedtime, when going to the back kitchen to see if the house was shut up, a noise in the coachman’s room attracted his attention, and, going in, he discovered to his horror that the man was in bed with one of the maids. She screamed, he struggled, and they rolled out of bed together and made frantic efforts to get apart, but without success. He was a big, burly man, over six feet, and she was a small woman, weighing not more than ninety pounds. She was moaning and screaming, and seemed in great agony, so that after several fruitless attempts to get them apart, he sent for me. When I arrived, I found the man standing up and supporting the woman in his arms, and it was quite evident that his penis was tightly locked in her vagina, and any attempt to dislodge it was accompanied by much pain on the part of both. It was, indeed, a case “De cohesione in coitu.” I applied water, and then ice, but ineffectually, and at last sent for chloroform, a few whiffs of which sent the woman to sleep, relaxed the spasm, and released the captive penis, which was swollen, livid, and in a state of semi-erection, which did not go down for several hours, and for days the organ was extremely sore. The woman recovered rapidly and seemed none the worse.

I am sorry that I did not examine if the sphincter ani was contracted, but I did not think of it. In this case there must have been spasm of the muscle at the orifice, as well as higher up, for the penis seemed nipped low down, and this contraction, I think, kept the blood retained and the organ erect. As an instance of Iago’s “beast with two backs,” the picture was perfect. I have often wondered how it was, considering with what agility the man can, under certain circumstances, jump up, that Phineas, the son of Eleazar, was able to thrust his javelin through the man and the Midianitish woman (vide Exodus); but the occurrence of such cases as the above may offer a possible explanation.

Yours truly,
Egerton Y. Davis
Ex. U.S. Army
Caughnawauga, Quebec,
4th December, 1884.

According to certain prefatory notes relating to his alter ego “Egerton Yorrick Davis, M.D., late U.S. Army, Caughnawauga, Quebec”, Osler made a belated effort to stop the publication of the above letter. He never tried to publicize his role in the hoax or to clear the record.

The spurious case report became literature. It has often been cited as a reliable medical evidence of penis captivus for nearly a hundred years by those who were unaware that it was a hoax.

Sir William Osler served for many years as Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. He was instrumental in founding the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City. Osler’s writing on urological oriented sexual topics did not end with the above cited mischievous contribution. Throughout his illustrious career, he continued to submit letters to medical journals.

In 1903, Osler’s devilish streak surfaced once again. He submitted a letter to the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal titled “Peyronie’s Disease — Strabisme du Penis“. The report was about “an old codger” who experienced “a most remarkable change in his yard.” Osler signed it as J.W. White, Jr. the name of a well-known Philadelphia urologist.

Peyronie’s Disease – Strabisme du penis
Pittsburg, Feb. 14, 1903

Mr. Editor: An old codger of about 65 years came in one day, and, casting a furtive glance about the room, shut the door with great deliberation. To my question, “What is the matter?” he replied, “Squint of the cock.” As I did not take genito-urinary cases, I advised him to consult my friend Dr. Ricord, upon which he handed me a letter, saying that his doctor had told him that I would be most interested in his case. He then told me his story. A widower for some years, he was anxious to marry again, but was afraid to do so on account of a most remarkable change in his yard. When erect it curved to one side in such a way as to form a semicircle, hopeless and useless for any practical purpose. I call it, he said, squint of the cock. Examination showed at one side at the root of the penis a firm induration about the size of a cherry, so placed as to completely fill a part of one corpus cavernosum. Of course, on erection blood filled the other corpus only, and in consequence the penis curved towards the affected side, producing the squint of which he spoke. In the works at my disposal, including one well-known manual of genito-urinary surgery, I could find no account of this singular affection, but have learned when in doubt to consult Hutchinson’s Archives of Surgery, I there found a very full account of these fibrous plaques in the corpora cavernosa, which if unilateral produce all sorts of distortions of the penis, if bilateral, impotence. Turning to another storehouse, the Dictionnaire Encylcopedique, under the article “Pénis,” I there found a very good description, but in addition, what was most interesting, the statement that in about 1765, Peyronie, a French surgeon, had described the disease as strabisme du pénis, the very term used by my old patient. There are very good illustrations of the condition in Taylor’s Manual, but in these eponymic days old Peyronie should have the credit of describing in a happy phrase a very unfortunate defect.

J. W. W., Jr.

A short time later , the real J.W. White, Jr. on recognizing the true author, countered in the same journal a charge of “plagiarism”. He detailed the telltale evidence of the identity of the true author.

These fictitious and sexual case-reports demonstrate the mischievous sense of humour that lurked behind the respectable façade of Sir William Osler, the illustrious doctor.

 To be continued…

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