Penis Captivus And The Mischievous Sir William Osler
May 1983   (Vol. 76, No. 5)

Penis Captivus And The Mischievous Sir William Osler


Penis captivus is said to occur when a couple becomes inseparably joined in the act of sexual intercourse. A report of this condition appeared in 1884 that continues to be cited in our current literature as a classic case.1

This particular report was prompted by the printing in Medical News of an unsigned editorial entitled "An Uncommon Form of Vaginismus"2 that was written by Theophilus Parvin, an obstetrician who served on the editorial board of that journal. That editorial, which alluded to previous poorly documented cases of penis captivus, was a stilted essay with dubious applicability for the practitioner. Parvin was jubilant to receive a letter postmarked Montreal and signed by Egerton Y. Davis of Caughnawaga, Quebec, reporting a case of penis captivus that he had personally treated in Pentonville, England. It provided Parvin with documentation of a case just as he had proposed possible in his editorial and he promptly had it published in the correspondence column of Medical News.

Davis related the incident as follows:

. . . I was sent for, about 11:00 P.M., by a gentleman whom, on my arriving at his house, I found in a state of great perturbation, and the story he told me was briefly as follows;

At bedtime, when going to the back kitchen to see if the house was shut up, a noise in the coachman's room attracted his attention, and, going in, he discovered to his horror that the man was in bed with one of the maids. She screamed, he struggled, and they rolled out of bed together and made frantic efforts to get apart, but without success. He was a big, burly man, over six feet, and she was a small woman, weighing not more than ninety pounds. She was moaning and screaming, and seemed in great agony, so that, after several fruitless attempts to get them apart, he sent for me. When I arrived I found the man standing up and supporting the woman in his arms, and it was quite evident that his penis was tightly locked in her vagina, and any attempt to dislodge it was accompanied by much pain on the part of both. It was, indeed, a case 'De cohesione in coitu.' I applied water, and then ice, but ineffectually, and at last sent for chloroform, a few whiffs of which sent the woman to sleep, relaxed the spasm, and relieved the captive penis, which was swollen, livid, and in a state of semi-erection, which did not go down for several hours, and for days the organ was extremely sore. The woman recovered rapidly, and seemed none the worse.

I am sorry that I did not examine if the sphincter ani was contracted, but I did not think of it. In this case there must have been also spasm of the muscle at the orifice, as well as higher up, for the penis seemed nipped low down, and this contraction, I think, kept the blood retained and the organ erect. . . .

It was signed:   Egerton Y. Davis, Ex. U.S. Army, Caughnawaga, Quebec, 4th December, 1884.

It has been well documented that Egerton Yorrick Davis was the sometimes alterego-pseudonym-nom de plume of the mischievous Sir William Osler.1

The origin of E.Y. Davis can be traced back to Montreal. Along with documents relating to David in the Osler Library is the following note by Osler explaining how he became associated with this fellow:

I never could understand about Egerton Yorrick Davis. He is represented to have practices at Caughnawaga nearly opposite Montreal, where his collections were stored in the Guildhall. Some have said that he was a drunken old reprobate, but the only occasion on which I met him, he seemed a peaceable enough old rascal. One thing is certain, he was drowned in the Lachine Rapids in 1884, and the body was never recovered. He had a varied life -- in the U.S. Army; in the North West; among the Indians; as a general practitioner in the north of London. I knew his son well -- a nice mild-mannered fellow, devoted to his father.3

The reappearance of E.Y. Davis in 1884 quite conveniently coincided with Osler's move to Philadelphia. It appears that Dr. Osler, who was also on the editorial board of Medical News, was rather put out with Theophilus Parvin for devoting editorial space to such an obscure topic, and never expected nor intended for the letter, which was a complete fabrication, to be published. He certainly didn't expect it to become one of the more long- lived hoaxes in medical literature. Subsequently it has been referred to in several texts as a classic report of penis captivus, and as recently as 1979 an article in the British Medical Journal4 referred to the previously reported "more or less credible instance of penis captivus" reported by Davis. Most authorities who have reviewed the subject agree that no documented cases of penis captivus have occurred in modern times, and they cast serious doubt upon the validity of the earlier reported cases.5

Osler's great sense of humor and his role as a first rate prankster took root during his early childhood. Young Willie's career as a prankster first flowered at the age of 5 when, in response to his sister Chattie's teasing while he was chopping wood, he gave fair warning and then proceeded to chop off the tip of her finger. When he was 6 his family moved from the wilderness of Bond Head, Toronto, to Dundas near Hamilton, and here at the age of 15 he was expelled from the Dundas grammar school for his complicity in two episodes. Once he and his accomplices unfastened all of the school's desks and hid them in the attic, and on another occasion the schoolmaster entered the classroom to find it occupied by a gaggle of geese. When given his expulsion he rushed home with the joyful pronouncement, "I've got the sack."

He then moved on to the Barrie School where he became one of the three boys to be known as "Barrie's Bad Boys." Here he gained fame by covering the school's chimney with a board, thereby filling the building with smoke and necessitating the arrival of the Barrie Hook and Ladder Company for the nonexistent fire.

Osler's career as a prankster reached its zenith when he arrived at the Trinity College School in Weston. The school's headmaster, the Reverend C.H. Badgeley, was a stern young man who was determined to model the school on the lines of the English public schools Eton and Rugby. He wielded the cane often and required the students to wear top hats, which seemed a little out of place in that semiwilderness area of Canada. It was here on April 8, 1866 that Willie made the headlines of the Toronto Globe: "Weston School Pupils Turned Outlaws and Fumigate Matron With Sulphur." The unfortunate lady had incorrectly accused a student of feigning illness and had upset a pail of "slops" over his head. In retaliation Osler and his followers barricaded the woman in her room, placed a mixture of pepper, mustard, and molasses on a stove in the room below, and directed the fumes through a pipe into the victim's room which had previously been sealed. The lady was retrieved just short of suffocation and she pressed charges of assault and battery. The boys were jailed, but released after a couple of nights, having to pay a fine of one dollar each.6,7

It is quite apparent that the spirit and soul of Egerton Yorrick Davis had undergone several years of growth and development before his entering medical circles. Surely the middle name Yorrick was a reflection of Dr. Osler's literary interests, taking its origin from the quotation from Hamlet:   "Alas, poor Yorrick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy" -- a description not inappropriate for Osler himself in his lighter moments.

His sense of good humor and appreciation for the good joke persisted throughout his long and successful career. In contrast to the outright hoax, such as the case of penis captivus, he occasionally reported a true case in a rabelaisian fashion. One such case he reported under the initials of one of his surgical friends, J. William White. It dealt with Peyronie's disease and involved the predicament of "an old codger of about 65 years" who complained of "squint in the cock." In the report he professed great pleasure in having a patient use an exact Anglicized equivalent of Dr. Peyronie's original phrase, "strabisme du penis" to describe this condition.8

Dr. Osler himself was stricken with a urologic malady while in Baltimore, but nevertheless was able to inject a sense of jocularity in the face of pain and suffering. In the medical report by his attending:

Present illness -- While reading at the Medical and Chirugical Library an article on "Strangulation of the Bile Ducts by Round Worms," by Ebstein, patient began to have pain in the left lumbar region of his back. He immediately started for home, hailing a cab on the way. Pain gradually became more severe and was intense by the time he reached home about 6:30 p.m. It was so intense that he felt faint. He immediately went to bed and a hot water bag was applied to the back. It seemed to relieve the pain. The attack was accompanied by garrulousness. Pain had practically subsided by 8 o'clock but was followed by considerable soreness in the left lumbar region. The night and morning urine were kept separate. There was no macroscopic evidence of blood in either specimen.

The most interesting statement, however, involved the examination of the urine specimens brought in by Dr. Osler. The microscopic examination showed an occasional red blood cell and numerous oxalates, but Dr. Futcher observed, "No true renal calculi found in either specimen. One bottle, however, contained 3 and the other 2 quartz stones gathered from the gravel walk."9

Dr. Thomas Cullen reminisced about the gaiety of Osler:

I suspect that his peculiar mixture of foolishness and thoughtfulness of others was one of the reasons he was so dearly beloved. One never knew what he might do or say, but one could be sure that it would be original, gay and graceful. Max Brodel depicted something of this trait in his famous cartoon of Osler which he drew in 1896. The likeness of Dr. Osler's head is excellent. Brodel has crowned it with a subdued halo and added a minute pair of wings and baby toes to the body -- emphasizing, I assume, the Oslerian childishness which at times was so cherubic.10

Notice that Osler's endorsement of the cartoon is signed with the pseudonym E.Y.D. After coming to the United States he never really tried to hide the true identity of Egerton Yorrick Davis, as is evidenced by his publicly autographing a menu of his farewell dinner from Baltimore with the now famous nom de plume, Egerton Y. Davis, Jr.

The impish and humorous alterego of "The Beloved Physician" sets yet another example after which we may model our own lives. Dr. George Blummer recalled this jocular side of Sir William Osler and had this to say:

No one who knew William Osler would claim that his strong appreciation of the jocose was of the satirical or barbed variety; rather it was warm and kindly. There are, and probably always have been, those who regard jocularity as beneath the dignity of great men; but I suspect that such people have confused dignity with pomposity, and that many of their exemplars were not great men, but, merely stuffed shirts. I have known many men, of varying degrees of distinction, but I have never known a really great one devoid of a sense of humor.11


1. Davis EY: Vaginismus, Med News 45:673, 1884
2. An uncommon form of vaginismus (Editorial), Med News 45:602, 1884
3. Cushing H: The Life of Sir William Osler, New York, Oxford University Press, 1940, pp 240-241
4. Taylor FK: Penis captivus -- did it occur? Br Med J 2:977, 1979
5. Bondurant BS, Cappannari SC: Penis captivus, fact or fancy? Med Aspects Hum Sex 5:224, 1971
6. Bean WB, William Osler: the Egerton Yorrick Davis alias, Humanism in Medicine, McGovern IP, Burns CR (eds). Springfield, Ill, Charles C Thomas, 1970, pp 49-59
7. Holley HL: A Continual Remembrance: Letters From Sir William Osler to His Friend Ned Milburn, 1865-1919. Springfield, Ill, Charles C. Thomas, 1968, pp 22-25
8. Colonie's disease -- Strabisme due penis (Letter). Boston Med Surg J pp 240-245, 1903
9. Futcher TB: Dr. Osler's renal stones. Arch Intern Med 84:40, 1949
10. Cullen TS: The gay of heart. Arch Intern Med 84:41, 1949
11. Blumer G: The jocular side of Osler, Arch Intern Med 84:34, 1949