An ‘unnatural propensity’ and its perils

heart onanismUntil the early twentieth century, medicine had little to say about heart disease.  Although the best specialists of the nineteenth century became remarkably adept at distinguishing between different types of congenital defects using little more than the stethoscope and physical symptoms, they remained almost clueless about acquired conditions – and, in particular, what caused them.  This led to several strange pronouncements from the profession, as a series of perfectly innocent activities were deemed to be potential triggers for heart disease.

These included rowing (the subject of a controversy in the 1890s, when one leading physician claimed that members of the Boat Race crews were endangering their lives), cycling and even skipping.  An edition of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal from 1830 documents yet another: masturbation.

The journal reports a recent paper by a Dr Krimer of Aach:

Dr. K. is of opinion that diseases of the heart, which have increased so much within the last twenty years, do not always depend upon organic alteration, but are very frequently produced by the baneful and lamentably frequent practice of the vice of onanism. Headachs, great anxiety, palpitations, faintness, an oppression and unusual sensibility in the epigastric region, are the first symptoms produced. They increase in severity in proportion as the subject gives way to the gratification of his unnatural propensity, and quickly diminish, or cease altogether, if he abandons it.

Dr Krimer’s report continues with a list of the commonest symptoms of heart disease caused by excessive self-abuse.  To aid differential diagnosis (a posh medical term for distinguishing one disease from another) he includes remarks on the particular hallmarks of the habitual masturbator:

  1. The hair loses its natural brilliancy, is remarkably dry, and frequently splits at the extremities. It falls off easily and in large quantities, especially from the fore part of the head. In persons affected with consumption, or organic disease of the heart, the hairs appear well nourished, and rarely fall off.

The author of this blog is almost bald.  He is confident that this is entirely due to genetic factors.

  1. The eyes are dull, downcast, frequently full of tears, without expression, and deeply sunken in their orbits. The edges of the eyelids are reddish, and surrounded by a bluish tint. In phthisical patients, and those with organic disease of the heart, the eyes are brilliant, and always preserve their natural expression and vivacity. In young females, at the approach of menstruation, a blue circle is commonly observed around the eyes, but here also their brilliancy is undiminished.
  1. The patient appears very timid, and unwilling to look other people in the face.
  1. Periodical headach is common, extending from the occiput towards the forehead.
  1. The power of sight is diminished, the appetite is lost, and the tongue is usually loaded. A slight cough, short and difficult respiration, are generally present; but still the patient can draw a deep inspiration.
  1. Pains in the stomach, with weight and pressure in the epigastric region. Patients with organic diseases of the heart have occasionally these symptoms, but in such cases they are not accompanied by those above enumerated.
  1. A general feeling of lassitude and feebleness of the limbs, with pains in the lower part of the back. We would add, also, that pain and throbbing of the testicles, with uneasy sensations shooting up the spermatic cord, are frequently complained of.
  1. The perspiration has a dull and sweetish odor, similar to that of infants at the breast.
  1. If the vice of onanism be touched upon in conversation, the agitation and embarrassment of the patient invariably betray him. 
  1. If the practice be continued, the mind is at length enfeebled, the patient is incapable of mental or bodily exertion, and sinks into a state of somnolency.

The article concludes without offering any therapeutic options.  Luckily, the archives of this blog contain a couple of treatments, both for onanism and for heart disease: you could put a sticking-plaster on it, and then try using a swing.

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