The golden padlock

case of infibulationIn 1827 The London Medical and Physical Journal published a short report on what it called a case of ‘infibulation’. I was unfamiliar with this term, so had to look it up. It usually refers to an extreme form of female genital mutilation (FGM), the barbaric practice intended to prevent women from enjoying – and sometimes even engaging in – sexual intercourse. Infibulation sometimes applies to men, too, as this extraordinary case demonstrates.

[In case you’re wondering whether to read on, it’s a fairly innocuous story and unlikely to offend any sensibilities]

Some years ago M. Dupuytren was consulted by Dr. Petroz, upon the case of M., the head of one of the most important manufactories in France.

This is the nineteenth-century equivalent of the managing director of Peugeot or Airbus walking into your hospital.

He was about fifty years of age, of a strong and good constitution. For a long time he had had an abundant and fetid discharge from the penis: he made water with difficulty: the prepuce was much swollen, hard, and ulcerated in different parts.

The prepuce is the foreskin. And this example sounds mighty unpleasant.

So far the case presented nothing remarkable; but the curiosity of the attendants was strongly excited by observing that the prepuce had been pierced through in several places, and that the aperture and borders of these small orifices were completely covered by a perfectly-organized cutaneous tissue.

‘Perfectly-organised’ means that new skin had formed over the edges of the wounds, in much the same way that an ear piercing will become lined with new skin after a few weeks, as long as an earring or stud is left inside it to keep the hole open. This observation turned out to be significant.

M. Dupuytren determined, before he proceeded to any decisive mode of treatment, to ascertain in what manner these perforations in the prepuce had happened. The patient stated, that, when a young man, he had visited Portugal, where he had remained several years. He there formed a tender liaison with a young female of strong passions, and equally strong jealousy. He was devotedly attached to her, and she acquired over him the most absolute influence.

So far, so sweet.

One day during the transports of their mutual passion, he felt a slight pricking sensation in the prepuce; but, having his attention completely abstracted by the caresses of his fair mistress, he did not even examine from whence arose the disagreeable feeling he had experienced. But, on retiring from the embraces of the lady, he found the prepuce secured by a little golden padlock, beautifully made, of which she had kept the key!

Rather less sweet.

It would appear that the lady was not deficient in eloquence, for she kept her lover in good humor by her rhetoric, assisted, indeed, by occasional caresses, and persuaded him, not only to permit the padlock to remain, but to consider it a very ornamental appendage.

There are plenty of modern intimate-piercing fans who would agree.

She even gained permission to re-apply it each time, that the skin which was pierced appeared weakened; and, however incredible it may seem, she at length, “to make assurance doubly sure,” put on two locks.

I think I would draw the line at that, although one also suspects that ‘M’ was finding this more pleasurable than he admitted to his doctors.

M remained in this state for four or five years, constantly wearing one or two of the locks appended to the prepuce, the key of which was of course taken especial care of by his mistress. The consequence ultimately was that the prepuce became diseased, and a cancerous affection was threatened, when M. Dupuytren was consulted.

‘Cancerous’ was sometimes used to describe a condition with a tendency to spread, such as ulcers or a rash; it does not necessarily indicate malignancy.

The safest and most effectual course was then adopted. The prepuce was removed by an operation nearly resembling circumcision. Under the care of M. Sanson, the cure was complete in less than three weeks. The patient has remained in perfect health.

One hopes that this French captain of industry managed to keep the episode secret from his employees. He’d never have heard the end of it.

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