Dancing testicles

The runaway winner of the prize for Best Book Title of 1833, had such an award existed, would surely have been James Russell’s Observations on the Testicles. This monograph was the work of a distinguished Scottish professor who was the leading trainer of surgeons at a period when the Edinburgh medical faculty was arguably the greatest in the world.

Russell’s book, published in the year he retired at the age of 79, is a brief but comprehensive survey of the multitude of diseases and injuries which can afflict that most tender part of a gentleman’s anatomy. In the chapter devoted to ‘descent of testicles’ he relates the following affecting story, which was related to him by a naval surgeon, Mr A. C. Hutcheson:

In July 1806, or 1807, during a cruise off the Island of Madeira, in HMS Druid, a merchant-ship from the coast of Africa, bound to Glasgow, was boarded, from which an English seaman and a Negro boy were impressed, and, according to the custom of the service, were, previously to their being finally detained, ordered to the cockpit for the purpose of examination by the surgeon, as to their fitness for the king’s service.

press gang
A late 18th-century press gang at work

‘Impressed’ means that they were pressed into service. Impressment, the practice of recruitment by force, was much used by the British Navy for over 150 years. The press gang was a much feared feature of many British ports in the early nineteenth century. Battleships far from home often resorted to impressment of merchant seamen to make up shortages of manpower resulting from injury or illness.

The man, on stripping himself, said that he was ruptured in both groins; that he had been “overhauled” (examined) a dozen times by the surgeons of different ships of war, and that he had as frequently been discharged again as unserviceable from this cause.

By ‘ruptured’ he meant that he had a hernia of the groin (known as an inguinal hernia) – a protrusion of the intestines through a hole in the abdominal wall and into the groin. The condition was first identified by James Russell.

There certainly was a swelling in each groin, very much resembling hernia; but the weather at this time being extremely hot, and the scrotum therefore very pendent and flaccid, my attention was particularly called to it; and, on examination, I found the scrotum to be an empty bag, and the testes (of their natural size) lodged in the groin. As soon as this discovery was made, the poor man, from being at length and so unexpectedly detected, became quite unnerved, and so agitated, that, upon re-examining the parts, the testes were found to have descended into their proper places in the scrotum.

In other words, the ‘hernia’ was simply the man’s testicles, which instead of sitting cradled by the scrotum had somehow been sucked up into the abdominal cavity. But how? All was soon revealed:

After commending the man for his ingenuity, and, in place of physic, administering to him a glass of grog, his spirits were rapidly restored; and, seeing no longer any chance of eluding the king’s service, he displayed before us several remarkable feats of the power he possessed over these organs. He pulled both testes from the bottom of the scrotum up to the external abdominal rings, with considerable force, and again dropped them into their proper places, with incredible facility. He then pulled up one testis, and after some pause the other followed, as the word of command was given; he then let them both drop into the scrotum simultaneously.

This is beginning to sound like a rather seedy cabaret act.

He also pulled one gradually up, whilst the other was as gently descending; and he repeated this latter experiment as rapidly as the eye could well follow the elevation and descent of the organs, so that my assistant and myself were not only surprised, but so exceedingly amused, that we could hardly believe the evidence of our senses.

It all sounds hilarious. If you overlook the tiny matter of his just having been press-ganged into the Navy.

This man afterwards proved to be a willing and hard-working man.

With a party trick like that, I bet he kept his comrades entertained after a few pints of grog, too.

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