How an impossible condition found its way into medical literature.
Being a professional musician means playing for hours every day, and this devotion can have consequences for the body. Singers may get sore a throat, pianists painful shoulders and male cello players an irritated scrotum – or maybe not..
For 34 years, medical literature referred to ‘cello scrotum’ as a condition caused by the body of the cello irritating the scrotum of the musician. Although this may sound like a logical problem for those who never watched a cello player at short range, the instrument isn’t actually played so close to the body for the condition to happen. So how did this fictional disease found its way into medical literature?
It started in April 1974, when Dr. Elaine Murphy read a report published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), describing a phenomenon called ‘guitar nipple,’ a skin condition that occurs when some styles of guitar playing excessively irritates the player’s nipple. She thought it was a joke, and decided to reply by writing a letter to the journal mentioning a similar problem. Despite the implausibility of the condition, the article was published against her expectations. The journal received only one letter from another doctor at the time pointing out how unlikely it was.
Murphy finally admitted the hoax in 2009 in another letter to the BMJ, after the condition reappeared in the 2008 Christmas edition. Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ, had this to say: “It seems the BMJ has been deliciously hoaxed. It is wonderful it has been going all these years and no one realized. We frown on misconduct and medical fraud is taken very seriously. But in this case I hope I am right in saying that no harm has been done.”
Murphy, J. (1974). Letter: Cello scrotum. BMJ, 2 (5914), 335-335 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.2.5914.335-a