My column this week in The Guardian, looking back at medical reports about the epidemic of penile amputations in Thailand, inspired this letter from a reader, which the newspaper published on November 23:
I’m afraid your Improbable research piece (An epidemic of penile amputation, explained, 20 November) brought back to me something I foolishly read in the 1973 Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, while working at the HK Lewis medical library. It featured a man who had severed the head of his penis while hoovering iron filings from his underpants (don’t ask). He obviously got patched up OK, and I hoped the story wasn’t going to accompany me to the grave, but clearly it is.
—Tim Grollman, London
I have tried to find the article Mr. Grollman refers to. I believe that the article was published not in the Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, but rather in a different journal:
“Laceration of penis from hand vacuum cleaner,” Robert Zufall, Journal of the American Medical Association [JAMA), vol. 224, no. 5, 1973, pp. 630.
I have been unable to obtain a copy of that report by Dr. Zufall — it seems to be missing from the JAMA web site — and would be grateful if someone could find and send me a copy. There may be medically significant details that ought be brought to the public’s attention.
I did find two letters that JAMA published in response to Dr. Zufall’s letter:
“Penile Laceration,” Rodney A. Mannion, JAMA, vol. 224, no. 13, 1973, p. 1763. Dr. Mannion writes: “I have had a patient with this injury who admits to this practice, and a number of urologists also have had similar cases as we discovered at a meeting of the New England Section of the American Urologists Association in October 1972. Many of the urologists present knew of this injury. I would paraphrase Zufall’s letter, ‘So beware! It is more common than you think.'”
“Vacuum Cleaner and Penis,” Ian Kennedy, JAMA, vol. 225, no. 10, 1973, pp. 1250-1250. Dr. Kennedy writes: “Dr. Zufall’s letter about the vacuum cleaner reminds me of a similar case I had, supposedly due to a dog bite! Privacy and the look of incredulity on my face brought the confession that the vacuum cleaner was being used as a novel way of masturbating, with alarming results.”
(Thanks to investigator Annette Smith for bringing the Grollman letter to my attention.)