In 1843 the Provincial Medical Journal published a landmark paper by Dr W.H. Ranking from Suffolk. It was a ‘landmark’ in that it was the first full-length publication in English to discuss a new disease that was soon to become the scourge of the male population: spermatorrhoea. Or, in plain English, involuntary ejaculation.
The person who first brought this worrying new condition to light was Claude François Lallemand (1790–1854), a neurologist and urologist who was regarded as one of France’s greatest physicians of the period.
The preface to Lallemand’s three-volume magnum opus Des Pertes Séminales Involontaires, published between 1836 and 1842, begins with a concise statement of the problem:
During a period of fourteen years, I have collected more than one hundred and fifty cases in which involuntary seminal discharges were sufficiently serious to disorder the health of the patients considerably, and even sometimes, to cause death.
Lallemand believed that he had identified a previously unknown disorder of the urinogenital system – one with potentially fatal consequences. Dr Ranking, the first British doctor to take his thesis seriously, explains in slightly more detail:
After a greater or less amount of abuse of the genital organs, either natural or unnatural, the individual makes the discovery that he has become infested with seminal emissions during sleep. The emissions at first are accompanied by erection, but soon occur with diminished rigidity of the penis. If he at this time indulge in sexual intercourse, he experiences more than usual difficulty in consummating the act, he is frequently disappointed altogether, or, if not, erection is incomplete, and ejaculation more than ordinarily precipitate, and, as some patients have informed me, even painful, rather than accompanied by the usual sensations.
The reference to ‘abuse of the genital organs’ is significant. The identification of spermatorrhoea as a disease was inextricably linked to the medical profession’s horror of masturbation, which had emerged in the previous century. Onanism or self-abuse was believed to lead to all sorts of dire consequences, from physical exhaustion to mental incapacity. It was probably inevitable that ‘nocturnal emission’ would eventually be regarded as part of the same disease process. As Dr Ranking explains:
The pernicious effects of these discharges upon the genital economy is soon evidenced.
‘Genital economy’ is a phrase I intend to slip into casual conversation at the first opportunity.
The mind becomes enfeebled and incapable of protracted attention, the memory fallacious and uncertain, and the patient feels that he is no longer fitted for his usual avocations. His disposition undergoes an equal change; he becomes morose and suspicious, fond of solitude, lachrymose upon trivial occasions, and exhibits those apparently causeless contrarieties of temper which are commonly received as evidences of hypochondriasis or eccentricity.
And it wasn’t just the individual’s mental health that was at risk.
Cerebral and thoracic symptoms – as giddiness, noises in the ears, palpitation, and cough – present themselves in greater or less intensity; the body gradually emaciates, especially about the lower extremities; the aspect becomes dejected; the patient seldom raises his eyes to the person he addresses, as if conscious that the expression of his countenance would reveal his wretched condition; digestion is impaired, and accompanied by pain and flatulence; the bowels are almost invariably costive – indeed, I know of no other disease, short of mechanical obstruction, in which they so obstinately resist the most powerful cathartics.
By 1850, doctors across Europe and America were taking spermatorrhoea seriously, with numerous books and articles written about it. But how to treat it? Some doctors favoured drugs to blunt the libido; others used invasive surgical procedures such as cauterising the prostate gland (an undertaking which must have been excruciatingly painful). But an altogether more ingenious approach was first documented in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1853:
For several years past some of the very worst forms in which the disease presents itself, have been terminated in a short time, and the sufferer restored to permanent health, by a mechanical contrivance, which originated, it is believed, in Boston.
It is made of steel, clasping like a dog’s collar, according to the size required, and having on its inner edge a row of sharp points. Within this steel ring is another, extremely delicate, which opens to receive the penis, and retains it exactly in the middle. The theory of a cure, as well as the facts, are simply these. When an erection takes place, the small ring allows the member to enlarge till it strikes the sharp points, and then the individual is awake and safe.
Well, yes, that would tend to wake one up.
After interrupting the emission a few times in this way, the morbid tendency in many cases is removed, and the sickly, feeble youth rallies and regains his health. Other cases may require a more constant use of the remedy, until maturer age and different circumstance render it no longer necessary.
But an even more sophisticated device was already available. This report appeared in The Doctor in 1877:
At a meeting of the Societe de Chirurgie of Paris, in April last, M. Verneuil mentioned that M. Moniere, a hospital student, had a brother who for the last fourteen years, ever since the age of nineteen, had suffered from spermatorrhea, with erections. The patient was almost rendered sleepless, for as soon as sleep commenced the young man had erections and seminal emissions. Several persons passed the night at his bedside, with the injunction to awaken him so soon as erection ensued.
What sort of job is that? Sitting beside a young man’s bed, looking for erections. Count me out.
…and his brother invented a very ingenious apparatus to which he had given the name of electromedical alarm. A small, very light ring was attached in front of the pubis by cords; two cords make this ring communicate with the poles of a pile…
A ‘pile’ being an archaic term for an electrical battery.
The penis is introduced into the ring so that contact takes place, but no kind of pressure; on the contrary, as soon as the penis becomes erect the smallest pressure makes the battery to work. In order not to disturb neighbours, the bell is made very feeble; but then it is accessary that an india-rubber tube should make the bell communicate with the ear.
This is rather poorly explained, but the concept is simple. If the patient sustained an erection, his penis would complete an electrical circuit to make an alarm bell ring. The refinement (a rubber tube between the bell and the patient’s ear) is rather a nice touch.
Since the patient had used this instrument the spermatorrhea had almost altogether disappeared, gradually, and his general condition had greatly improved.
An illustration of a strikingly similar device is included in William Harvey King’s 1896 Treatise on Spermatorrhea, Impotence, and Sterility – though King does not acknowledge Moniere’s invention, crediting instead a Dr S.F. Wilcox for the idea.
Treatments for spermatorrhoea were big business, particularly in the USA, between about 1860 and 1880. Newspapers regularly included advertisements like this one – note the contrast between the haggard, emaciated sufferer and the vigorous-looking specimen who has recovered from the debilitating condition.
Astonishingly, ‘spermatorrhea rings’ and similar devices were still available well into the 20th century. You can see a photograph of one example on the website of the excellent William P. Didusch Center for Urologic History. But as medical knowledge progressed, doctors came to realise that masturbation, ‘nocturnal emissions’ and other examples of sexual activity outside intercourse were not the great evils they had believed – and spermatorrhoea became a historical curiosity rather than a serious diagnosis.