I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Tall Tales From the World of Medicine
There are plenty of bizarre occurrences that happen in the medical field. Some of them have to do with people seeking notoriety by faking a condition, while others involve jesters who like to make fools of people who set themselves up as experts. This article explores four interesting medical mysteries from history.
1. The Boy with the Golden Tooth
Seven-year-old Christoph Müller lived in Silesia, part of Poland today. In 1593, stories began to circulate that the lad had sprouted a golden tooth. Jakob Horst, a professor of medicine, decided to check out the remarkable story.
Yes, indeed, young Christoph had a gold tooth firmly implanted in his jaw. Professor Horst slipped into overdrive and penned a treatise of 145 pages on the topic. The learned doctor determined that at the time of the boy’s birth, the planets were in such a formation that they amplified the heat of the sun. This solar effect apparently caused the child to develop a golden jaw.
A Scottish physician, Duncan Liddell, wasn’t convinced that celestial intervention was involved, but it required a drunk to reveal the truth. Young Christoph, perhaps sensing the jig might be up, refused to let anyone else inspect his tooth.
A nobleman who had come to view the marvel and who had imbibed liberally flew into a rage when refused a viewing and stabbed the kid in the cheek. A doctor arrived to stitch up the gash and discovered the tooth had been cleverly capped with a thin layer of gold. Christoph went to prison, but his dentistry has gone down in history as probably the first example of a golden crown.
2. The Mother of Bunnies
Mary Toft was an illiterate servant living near Guildford, Surrey, in England. In August 1726, she had a miscarriage. A month later, she went into labour and out popped something that looked like animal parts. Sometime later, she produced a litter of nine dead baby rabbits.
A local obstetrician named John Howard attended the curious events and helped deliver various other animal parts. He alerted higher authorities that something quite miraculous was taking place.
Some big wigs from the court of King George I were dispatched to investigate. In the presence of the Swiss surgeon Nathaniel St. André and Samuel Molyneux, secretary to the Prince of Wales, Mary Toft gave birth to her 15th stillborn bunny. Then another, and another.
The expert physicians examined the dead rabbits and concluded they had not developed inside Mary’s womb, so it cannot be said their medical education was entirely wasted. However, St. André concluded that something supernatural was going on. More skilled doctors attended, and more rabbits arrived.
The Toft family cashed in on Mary’s unusual fecundity, as people were happy to part with coin to see the phenomenon.
In December 1726, a great conclave of medical men gathered in London to witness more rabbit births and to determine what was going on. Opinion was divided, although a Dr. James Douglas seems to have had a better grasp of the reproductive process than his colleagues. He said the whole thing was a fake, and his case was bolstered when a doorman was caught trying to smuggle a dead rabbit into the place where Mary Toft was living.
Mary eventually confessed to putting dead rabbits in her vagina and then faking going into labour. Niki Pollock with the University of Glasgow writes that “In the aftermath of the hoax, the medical profession suffered a great deal of mockery for what the public viewed as its gullibility.”
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3. Another Immaculate Conception
“Attention Gynaecologists!—Notes from the Diary of a Field and Hospital Surgeon, C.S.A.” That’s the title of an article that appeared in The American Medical Weekly in 1874. It recounted a strange occurrence during a Civil War battle in May 1863.
Dr. LeGrand G. Capers reported that a Confederate soldier had suffered a grievous injury; a bullet known as a Minié ball had seriously injured the man’s genitalia. At the same moment, Capers heard a scream from a nearby farmhouse, where a young woman had sustained an abdominal wound.
Nine months later, Dr. Capers attended the same young woman and delivered a healthy baby boy. The woman said she had never had sex, and Capers said her hymen was intact prior to the birth. Then, it turned out that the youngster’s scrotum was enlarged. Dr. Capers operated and removed a deformed Minié ball.
Dr. Capers wrote that the bullet had gone through the soldier’s testicle “carrying with it particles of semen and spermatozoa into the abdomen of the young lady, then through her left ovary, and into the uterus, in this manner impregnating her! There can be no other solution to the phenomenon!”
Perhaps, the child was indeed a son of a gun.
Actually, no. Capers made the story up as a joke. Two weeks later, The American Medical Weekly posted a retraction, but it was too late. The story was repeated without question in several medical journals, and then it escaped into the popular press. Despite being thoroughly debunked, it lives on in the less reliable recesses of the internet.
4. The Village of Centenarians
What’s the secret to enjoying a long and healthy life? In the 1970s, the answer seemed to be “Live in the village of Vilcabamba, Ecuador.” Some people there said they were more than 140 years old, and they seemed to have the birth records to back up their longevity claims.
A census in 1971 revealed that out of just over 800 people in the village, nine clocked in as centenarians. If the United States had the same proportion of centenarians, there would have been two and a half million of them in 1971; the actual number was about 7,000. Also, there were lots of Vilcabambans jogging along in their ‘80s and ‘90s, and another count pushed the number of centenarians up to 23.
As word spread, journalists swept into the place to big up the story of the longevos (long-lived). A couple of books further enhanced the village’s reputation of being filled with venerable residents.
Eminent scientists from the likes of Harvard and the University of California were dispatched to the high Andes community to find out what was going on. Perhaps there was some sort of elixir of youth that could be synthesized and popped into everybody’s breakfast cereal.
Alas, there is no magic secret that Vilcabambans can share with the rest of the world; they simply lied about their ages. In 1979, Dr. Richard B. Mazess and Dr. Sylvia H. Forman exposed the problem in The Journal of Gerontology: “Age exaggeration appears to be a common finding in the extreme elderly throughout the world and appears associated with illiteracy and absence of actual documentation.”
Upon close examination, birth, marriage, and death records were found to be unreliable. Also, in the small, interrelated community, many people shared identical names with earlier generations, making the claim for extreme longevity look genuine.
- Grand View Research says, “Americans spend around USD 2.1 billion annually on weight-loss dietary supplements.” The U.S. National Institutes of Health says, “There’s little scientific evidence that weight-loss supplements work.”
- In 1974, The British Medical Journal published a brief item that covered the delicate subject of “Cello Scrotum.” The report cited evidence that male cello players, their thighs athwart the instrument, were likely to suffer injuries to the nether regions. It wasn’t until 2009 that the hoaxer confessed to the joke, although the condition had already been cited elsewhere.
- On January 21, 1985, Phil Donahue was broadcasting his popular talk show and dealing with the topic of gay seniors. An audience member was making a comment when she fainted. Then, another person fainted, and another, and another. It was a prank put on by a group called Fight Against Idiotic Neurotic Television (FAINT). The idea was to protest against talk shows covering sensationalist topics to gather ratings.
- “The Curious Case of Mary Toft.” Niki Pollock, University of Glasgow, August 2009.
- “Secrets of Vilcabamba, Playground of the Inca and Valley of Longevity.” April Holloway, ancient-origins.net, February 19, 2015.
- “Longevity and Age Exaggeration in Vilcabamba, Ecuador.” Richard B. Mazess, PhD, and Sylvia H. Forman, PhD, Journal of Gerontology, 1979, Vol. 34, No. I, 94-98.
- “The Boy with the Golden Tooth.” Museum of Hoaxes, undated.
- “Impregnated by a Speeding Bullet, and Other Tall Tales.” Rose Eveleth, The Atlantic, November 18, 2015.
- “4 Big Medical Hoaxes that Fooled (Almost) Everybody.” Leah Samuel, Statnews.com, July 8, 2015.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on August 30, 2020: