Fruit, feathers and hair

In 1838 a French specialist in bladder stones, Professor Civiale, wrote a remarkable paper for the Gazette des Hôpitaux in which he recorded the extraordinary variety of objects which he had been asked to remove from the urinary systems of his patients. He relates

a collection of one hundred and sixty-six cases of foreign bodies in the bladder, in which the following articles were removed from it; twenty-five needles and pins, one bodkin, two ear pickers, six fragments of bones, five teeth, eighteen sounds or bougies flexible and rigid, twelve pieces of wood, six needle cases, one cork, thirteen plant stems, ears of wheat and straws, nine pieces of lint, six pipe-stems, three glass tubes, various kinds of fruits, feathers and hair. Since that time up to 1861, he has extracted nineteen sounds or bougies, a leather strap, two pen-holders, an artist’s brush handle, two pieces of bone, a piece of tendon, a lamp wick, a barometer tube, and a medal. 

Impressive. But this catalogue of horrors is far from comprehensive. An even more extraordinary list was compiled a few years later by Samuel D. Gross in his Practical Treatise on the Diseases and Injuries of the Urinary Bladder, the Prostate Gland, and the Urethra (1851):

Bits of catheters, bougies, quills, pipe-stems, wood, straw, and other substances have been accidentally lodged in the urethra, by individuals endeavouring to draw off their urine, relieve a stricture, or provoke onanism. Females, apparently from mere wantonness, or a desire to excite sympathy and commiseration, often introduce pebbles, cherry-stones, chicken-bones, pins, needles, and other articles into the urethra. Moraud cites the case of a girl of twenty, who had inserted a tooth-pick into this passage, from which it soon slipped into the bladder, from which it was finally extracted by an operation. Pamard mentions an instance in which the foreign substance was an ivory whistle, three inches and a half long, and five lines in diameter at its centre. Rigal was obliged to remove from the bladder of a young female a wooden needle-case, which had passed into the urethra in masturbating. Morgagni asserts that it was by no means uncommon, in his day, in Italy, for lascivious girls to introduce into this canal the golden pins worn in their hair.

But it’s  not just ‘lascivious girls’ who go in for this sort of depraved behaviour; the men are just as bad.

Dr. James R. Wood, an excellent surgeon of New York, has recently shown me a pewter spoon-handle, five inches in length, which he removed from the urethra of an old man of seventy-two, who had been in the habit of using it for producing artificial excitement. One evening it slipped out of his fingers, and passed beyond his reach. Dr. Wood introduced a catheter, but found he could get it no further than the junction of the bulbous and membranous portions of the tube. To prevent the foreign body from passing completely into the bladder, he fixed it with his finger in the rectum, and then extracted it with the urethra forceps.

The next tale is even accompanied by an illustration:

In another case, for the particulars of which I am indebted to the same gentleman, the foreign body was a piece of leather, eighteen inches long, and about the size of a No. 7 catheter. The patient was a man forty-five years of age, who, while practising onanism, by means of this substance, found himself unable to withdraw it, although he used great exertion so to do. When Dr. Wood saw him, soon after the accident, four inches of the string were seen to protrude at the external orifice; while the other end, rolled up into a large and firm knot, by the patient’s manipulations, was discovered in the bladder by the finger in the rectum. By great and steady traction upon the free extremity of the foreign body, maintained for fifteen minutes, aided by division of the meatus, to allow the knot to pass, he finally succeeded in extracting it. The annexed drawing, Fig. 104, is an accurate representation of the vesical extremity of the string with its knot.

leather fragment
Leather fragment removed from patient’s bladder

Ouch. This final case, published in The Lancet in 1845, is the strangest of all, however. The patient himself was not to blame, since the foreign body was not inserted anywhere, but engulfed by his body:

A small brass curtain-ring had been put over the penis by a patient, then a boy of eight years, in order to prevent incontinence of urine during the night, for which he had been repeatedly punished. The penis swelled up, as might be expected, and he became frightened, but he dreaded also telling his friends. At last, the ring disappeared, the skin became ulcerated, the foreign body sank into the fissure so caused, the parts healed over it, and he almost forgot the circumstance. But he felt the ring upon the part when he examined it, and, some forty or fifty years afterwards, he desired anxiously to have it cut off, thinking that it interfered with his powers. An incision was made upon the foreign body, and a pretty large stone removed, in which was found embedded the greater part of the ring. How the erectile tissue had become again pervious it is impossible to say, for it must have been thoroughly cut through.

3 thoughts on “Fruit, feathers and hair”

  1. Holy Cow! I’m no anatomist. How is it possible that most of these things managed to get lodged in a urethra without causing the patients the most intense pain? Needles? Surely these people could have found a better use of their time.

    By the way: I absolutely love your blog!

    1. Thanks! I imagine they were in quite a lot of pain. That said, objects in the bladder gradually become encrusted with mineral deposits over time – surgeons who removed them often reported that the foreign body formed the core of a stone or calculus, which might have been a bit less excruciating. Still not much fun though.

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