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Victorian Tomfoolery, Or, the Bawdy in Question!

In honor of all the victims of April Fools’ pranks, the following tale demonstrates that even medical men are not above the temptation to tweak one another’s noses. It also is a lesson in scientific gullibility, since this particular joke stood as reliable medical evidence for nearly a hundred years.

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Dr.Theophilus Parvin (1829-1898), as JMC faculty member ca. 1890.

It began with a disagreement of personality between two members of the editorial board of the respected journal, Philadelphia Medical News. One, Dr. Theophilus Parvin, Chair of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women and Children at Jefferson Medical College, published an editorial titled, “An Uncommon Form of Vaginismus” in the November 29, 1884 issue of Philadelphia Medical News. A contemporary medical dictionary entry for vaginismus was defined as “Painful spasm of the sphincter vaginae.” His editorial began loftily with a quote from the Roman author Horace and ended with an 18th century reference to “the captive human penis” by the “grasping” vagina.

Parvin was a highly respected teacher, author, and practitioner. He published numerous and wide-ranging articles and textbooks and, according to a 1928 article by Dr. G.C. Mosher, Parvin was “the most classical, philosophical contributor to the literature of obstetrics and gynecology America has ever known.” He served as president of many learned societies, including the AMA and the International Congress of Obstetrics (1892).

Shortly after Parvin’s paper was published, a letter was received that described in detail an eyewitness modern account of “penis captivus,” the phenomenon, heretofore undocumented, of human couples unable to uncouple during coitus. The letter (postmarked from Canada) read, in part, as follows:

Dear Sir:

The reading of an admirably written and instructive editorial in the Philadelphia Medical News of 24th November, on forms of vaginismus, has reminded me of a case which bears out, in an extraordinary way, the statements therein contained. When in practice in 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, she 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…I applied water, 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…

The writer went on to detail the state of the genitalia of both parties with a reference to a Shakespearian allusion as Iago’s, “beast with two backs,” finally signing off, “Yours truly, Egerton Y. Davis, Ex. U.S. Army / Caughnawauga, Quebec, 4th December, 1884.

Seeing this as an ideal (and perhaps self-serving) affirmation of his earlier editorial, Dr. Parvin duly and unquestioningly published the correspondence in the December 13, 1884 issue of Philadelphia Medical News. For the next century, this case study was cited as evidence for the phenomenon of “penis captivus.”

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Drs. James C. Wilson and William Osler posed with students during Osler's visit to JMC in 1896.

A series of articles investigating the authorship of the letter in the Philadelphia Medical News was published in the early 1970s. It was revealed that the name, Egerton Y. [“Yorrick!”] Davis was the playful pseudonym of the towering figure, Sir William Osler (1849-1919). Osler apparently employed the same nom de plume throughout his career.

Dr. Osler held the first chair of Medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and later served as Regius Chair of Medicine at Oxford University. But in 1884, thirty-five year old Osler was the chair of Clinical Medicine in University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and, like Parvin, a member of the editorial board at Philadelphia Medical News. It is surmised by historians that he was piqued at Parvin whom he felt was a “pedantic prig” who had unfairly devoted “editorial space to such an obscure topic.” So he hatched a cunning plan…

The elaborate scheme had Osler writing his counterfeit letter in Philadelphia, posting it to a friend in Osler’s birthplace of Ontario, whence it was reposted to Parvin in Philadelphia. Osler later claimed that he made a belated and failed attempt to prevent publication of the letter. He rued the fact that the fictional case “is often quoted.” However, he never made an attempt to publicize his role in the hoax or to clear the record.

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Program cover, “Annual Banquet, Parvin Obstetrical Society, Philadelphia” (1896).

The discourse surrounding the letter from Dr. E. Y. Davis is fascinating, not only because of its associations with Sir William, but because the letter itself appears to reflect the Victorian male’s castration anxiety and the feared power of the female sexualized body. Nineteenth century society forbade the open discussion of sexual matters except through the learned dialog among medical gentlemen. The common pretext for such discussion was the pursuit of knowledge of human physiological functions. Many libraries of high-minded physicians included titles on the history of pornography and prostitution through the ages, sumptuously illustrated to provide stimulation for the intellect of the scholar. Parvin’s biographer pointed out that his writing was marked by its “abundance of classical…references.” Osler’s mock letter would appeal to Parvin with its intellectual veneer of literary analogies following the lurid description of the hapless servants.

So the letter fits neatly into this sub-genre of taboo medical literature. It becomes a kind of “Upstairs, Downstairs” exposé and includes all the elements of the classical Victorian sex farce: illicit sexual congress, lower class carnality, voyeurism, fetishism, embarrassing sexual situations in a rigid social setting and an obsession with the bizarre.

In Vienna, Sigmund Freud was at that time only beginning to formulate his therapeutic sessions with his patients' “psychosexual” disorders. (Thank Dr. Freud for “penis envy” and “castration” concepts.) In London, the brutally sexual “Jack the Ripper” murders (that would occur soon after in 1888) would both shock and legitimize popular interest in sex and violence.

At present, even though your modern medical dictionary may list the term, there are no verified human cases of “penis captivus.” Honestly!


Bondurant, S.W. And Cappannari, S.C.: Penis Captivus: Fact of Fancy?, Medical Aspects of Human Sexuality. v. 5, no.(5): 224-233 (March 1971).

Nation, F.E.: William Osler on Penis Captivus and other Urologic Topics, J. Urology. v. 2, no. 4: 486-70 (Oct. 1973).

Altaffer III, L.F.: Penis Captivus and the Mischievous Sir William Osler, Southern Medical Journal. v. 76, no. 5: 637-641 (May 1983).

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