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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Onan's Revenge: Death From Masturbation

By Thomas P. Lowry, MD

In the 1800s, as America became less of a collection of religious colonies and more of a secular nation, a new prophet arose, who redefined masturbation as a medical problem, rather than a purely religious issue. Sylvester Graham, inventor of the graham cracker, published his magnum opus, Lectures to Young Men, in 1834. In this tome, Graham warned that the solitary vice would lead to physical decay, insanity, and death.

In the Civil War era, before any real understanding of physiology and infectious diseases, the medical profession relied on authority and tradition, in the absence of real knowledge. In dozens of court-martials, regimental surgeons testified that the defendant was not in his right mind because of masturbation. Almost everyone accepted this connection between masturbation and insanity. A notable exception was--Mark Twain. In his magisterial essay, On the Science of Onanism, he ascribed to Julius Caesar these immortal words: "To the lonely it is company. To the forsaken, it is a friend. To the aged and to the impotent is is a benefactor. They that are penniless are yet rich, in that they still have this majestic diversion." Twain's turns of phrase are, of course, skeptical and light-hearted, but in this he was nearly alone.

The intrepid researcher, Edward S. Milligan, has called to my attention the records of St. Elizabeth's Hospital at Washington, DC, which was for decades the nation's only Federal psychiatric institution. In the six years before the Civil War, twelve men were admitted to the hospital with a mental disorder "caused by masturbation". Their average age was twenty-five. During the war itself, thirty-eight men were admitted with conditions attributed to masturbation. In the decade following the war, fifty-five men were admitted as insane secondary to masturbation. Thus from 1855 to 1875 a total of 108 psychiatric patients at St. Elizabeth's had their mental illness attributed to The Solitary Vice.

Excerpted from: "Onan's Revenge: Death From Masturbation", published in The Journal of Civil War Medicine, Vol. 11, No, 2.

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