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Medical Hoaxes
MalePregnancy.com, 2000
The website MalePregnancy.com documented the case of Mr. Lee Mingwei, who was supposedly the first human male to become pregnant. Visitors to the site could inspect a variety of documentary evidence about Mr. Mingwei's pregnancy such as news reports, pictures, video clips, Mr. Mingwei's EKG, ultrasound images, and blood-pressure measurements. However, conveniently, the delivery date of Mr. Mingwei's child had not yet been determined. The creator of the site, artist/filmmaker Virgil Wong, claimed that not only did it fool thousands of people, but that he was also contacted by numerous men seeking to become the next pregnant man. More…
Cockroach Pills, 1981
Dr. Josef Gregor held a press conference in New York in May 1981 to announce he had developed a miraculous pill that could cure colds, acne, anemia, and menstrual cramps. And it could even make people immune to nuclear radiation! The key ingredient in the pill, he said, was a hormone extracted from cockroaches. Over 175 newspapers published articles about the discovery. However, Dr. Josef Gregor was really long-time media hoaxer Joey Skaggs. Upon revealing the hoax, Skaggs commented, "I guess no one reads Kafka anymore." [More info: joeyskaggs.com]
Emile Coudé, 1957
The French doctor Emile Coudé (1800-1870) was the inventor of the curved "Coudé catheter" used by urologists to relieve urinary obstruction. Except that he wasn't. The man and his biography were invented as a joke by Welsh medical students in the 1950s. However, some physicians didn't realize it was a joke and referred to the man in medical textbooks. A few sources still mistakenly claim that the coudé catheter was named after a French physician. In reality, the coudé catheter was invented by Louis Mercier (1811-1882). In French, coudé (the adjective) means bent; coude (the noun) means elbow. More…
Hugh Stewart’s Sextuplet Hoax, 1951
In August 1951, 59-year-old science reporter Hugh Stewart approached his editors at the Chicago Herald-American with a hot tip. He had learned that a Chicago mother was about to give birth to sextuplets. It would be the first time a confirmed birth of sextuplets had occurred in America. Stewart offered no verifiable sources for the news. He insisted that "if I break my informants' confidence it will ruin me." Nor could he disclose the mother's name because "critical medical and psychological problems necessitate such protection." Nevertheless, the Herald-American decided to run his story on its front page. It appeared on August 21 under the... More…
Mencken’s History of the Bathtub, 1917
On December 28, 1917, H.L. Mencken published an article in the New York Evening Mail titled "A Neglected Anniversary." It described the history of the bathtub in America, noting that people were slow to accept tubs, believing they were dangerous to health. This attitude, Mencken said, changed when President Millard Fillmore became the first president to install a tub in the White House. Mencken's history of the bathtub was not true. He intended it as a joke, "some harmless fun in war days". However, few people recognized it as such. Details from Mencken's article began to appear in other papers. One scholar included the tale in a history of... More…
Dr. Egerton Yorrick Davis
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a number of medical journals published letters from a correspondent who identified himself as Dr. Egerton Yorrick Davis. His letters usually discussed bizarre cases of a sexual nature. Both the case histories and the letter writer himself were bogus. Egerton Yorrick Davis was the pseudonym of Dr. William Osler, a Johns Hopkins University professor, who amused himself by sending these prank letters. More…

The Case of the Miraculous Bullet, 1874
In November 1874 an unusual article appeared in the introductory volume of The American Medical Weekly, a Louisville medical journal. It was written by Dr. LeGrand G. Capers and was titled, "Attention Gynaecologists!—Notes from the Diary of a Field and Hospital Surgeon, C.S.A." In the article Dr. Capers recounted an unusual case of artificial insemination he had witnessed on a Civil War battlefield in Mississippi, in which a bullet had passed through a soldier's testicles, and then traveled on before hitting a woman and impregnating her. The event was said to have occurred on May 12, 1863 at around 3 p.m. at the "battle of R." (battle of... More…
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
The December 1845 edition of the American Whig Review contained an account of an unusual experiment designed to test whether hypnotism could delay the arrival of death. According to the article, a terminally ill patient, M. Ernest Valdemar, who only had hours left to live, was placed in a trance by a hypnotist. The effect was quite remarkable. Valdemar appeared to go into a state of suspended animation, moving only in response to the hypnotist's commands. He remained in this state for over a day, much to the surprise of his doctors who hadn't given him that long to live. Then Valdemar's pulse stopped and his breathing ceased. He was dead, but... More…
Graham’s Celestial Bed, 1775
James Graham was a notorious medical quack. He promised customers he could cure them of a variety of ills if they slept in his "celestial bed," for which he charged £50 a night. The bed had a mattress filled with "sweet new wheat or oat straw, mingled with balm, rose leaves, and lavender flowers." Electricity crackled across its headboard. Spending a night in it may have been a novel experience. But it had no curative powers. More…
Lucina Sine Concubitu, 1750
The British Royal Society received a report detailing how women could become pregnant without a man, due to the presence of microscopic "floating animalcula" in the air. The author suggested this discovery might restore the honor of women who could not otherwise explain their pregnancies. The report was actually satirizing the "spermist" theory, which held that sperm were little men (homunculi) that, when placed inside women, grew into children. More…
The Rabbit Babies of Mary Toft, 1726
Mary Toft claimed she was giving birth to rabbits, and she performed this feat in the presence of the King's personal surgeon. She was taken to London, where she continued to give birth to rabbits. But when the physician Sir Richard Manningham threatened to operate on her in order to examine her miraculous uterus, she confessed it was a hoax. She had been hoping to gain a pension from the King on account of her strange ability. More…
A Case of Pregnancy without Intercourse, 1637
A pamphlet published in Paris described the case of a woman who had given birth to a son, even though her husband had been absent for four years. When charged with adultery, the woman claimed innocence, explaining that her husband had impregnated her in a dream. The court accepted this argument. The report of this ruling caused an uproar throughout Paris, but upon investigation the pamphlet was revealed to be a hoax. More…
The Boy with the Golden Tooth, 1593
Reports spread of a young Silesian boy who had miraculously grown a golden tooth. Professor Jakob Horst investigated and determined that the boy did indeed have a gold tooth and attributed its growth to astrological causes. But the daily pressure of chewing eventually wore down the gold, revealing it to be a thin layer of metal skillfully fitted over the tooth. Although a fraud, it was also the first documented case of a gold crown fitted for a tooth. More…
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  • All text Copyright © 2014 by Alex Boese, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.