Painful news from the Bobbin Factory

Loss of scrotumHere’s something that will make you wince, and then marvel at the human body’s recuperative abilities. In 1849 Dr Thomas Sanborn, a surgeon from Newport in New Hampshire, wrote to the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal:

A young man, aged 23 years, engaged in the Bobbin Factory, was caught, while standing over a revolving arbor or shaft, by his apron, and drawn to the shaft, around which he revolved until he was separated from his clothes, they being twisted around the arbor.

This type of accident was horrifyingly frequent in nineteenth-century factories. Few precautions were taken around fast-moving machinery, and clothes and hair often became entangled in moving parts, sometimes with fatal results.

The silk cravat from his neck was broken in two places, being wound about the iron. He stood upon his feet immediately after the occurrence of the injury, with a fracture of the right humerus near its middle, a severe contusion of the arm from the shoulder to the middle of the forearm, with the blood streaming down his legs from the place where the scrotum had been.

Yes. I’m afraid that the young man’s scrotum was now in the past tense.

The latter was entirely torn off, the wound extending from midway between the anus and scrotum up to the top of the symphisis pubis, and from one groin to the other.

The pubic symphysis (usually spelled thus) is the joint between the two pubic bones.

The integuments of the penis were entirely torn off, with the scrotum, up to the collum or union of the skin with the delicate reflection from the glans penis, leaving the skin covering the glans and collum.

The covering of everything up to the tip (glans) of the penis had been ripped off. Ouch.

The testicles and penis were therefore entirely naked, except the glans penis and neck, as before stated. There was a contusion at the extremity of the penis, about the size of a half dime, which sloughed off about the diameter and thickness of that coin. The right testicle appeared to be injured, a coagulum of blood occupying the space between the testicle and tunica vaginalis, which coagulum was absorbed in a few days.

Double ouch.

I gave the patient some assurance that he could be excused from the painful operation to prepare him for an Eastern harem…

Castration, as was once employed to create eunuchs. A laboured medical joke.

…which assurance was very much strengthened by reading Benjamin Bell’s account of a cure after the scrotum was lost from mortification.

Benjamin Bell (1749–1806) was one of the  giants of 18th-century surgery. In his influential textbook A System of Surgery (1783-78) he reported a case, probably of cancer, in which

the whole scrotum separated, and left the testicles quite bare. During the time that the sore remained open, all the water collected in other parts of the body was evacuated, and by the use of large quantities of bark and mild dressings to the sore, the patient got well.

Dr Sanborn was encouraged by the similarity between that case and his, although he also noticed one important difference:

In Dr. Bell’s case, the testicles were covered, after recovery, with thick cellular substance; but in this, with genuine skin, Nature succeeded in repairing this horrid breach in about three months.

This  was certainly an impressive example of the body’s ability to bounce back from serious injury.

Skin was produced from the whole circumference of the wound, extending itself over the testicles, they being covered with granulations. The skin covering the penis being sent down from the neck, was rather more delicate in its structure than that covering the testicles, but it answered the purpose in every particular, without the functions of the organs being in the least impaired.

In fact, the young man was entirely cured.

The patient recovered entirely the use of his arm, before he was able to walk abroad.

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