Forum — From the August 2013 issue


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Whereas child bed wetters in sixteenth-century England had been directed for their malady to consume the testicles of a hedgehog or the windpipe of a cock, Enlightenment science, which rejected symbolical approaches to medical problems, recommended direct interventions to cut off the flow of urine. Thus did treatment in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries come to include:

Plugging the urethra.

Constriction of the penis with bandages, strings, adhesives, or vises, one of which was described as a “formidable rat-trap looking instrument.”

In severe cases, circumcision or clitoridectomy.

Ignipuncture of the perineum.

Sleeping on a hard surface.

Bladder and rectal irrigations.

Restricting the consumption of liquids.

Elevation of the feet.

Waking the child at regular intervals or otherwise preventing deep sleep.

Eliminating sugar.

Removing the child from school.

Cleanliness, fresh air, and exercise.

Sponging the lower part of the spine nightly.

Cold baths.


Tinctures of strychnine, cantharides, or iron.

Injecting the bladder with gaseous carbonic acid.

Dilating the urethra and applying a strong solution of silver nitrate.[1]

[1] In 1902, Dr. D. Hamilton Kyle wrote in to the British Medical Journal to denounce this technique, advocated by another practitioner, as being “somewhat heroic.”

For those living in orphanages or workhouses, changing sheets in front of other children.

Ten grains of potassium bicarbonate and acetate in infusion of buchu, taken every four hours in water drawn from the healing mineral springs of Pitkeathly Wells, a town north of the Ochil Hills in Scotland.

Visiting Saint-Pissou (St. Piss), a spring whose powers date back to 1789, when revolutionaries destroyed the saints’ statues and drank its water, and died in terrible pain while urinating.

Fright induced by, among other things, smooshing a live mouse in the child’s hand, bringing her to witness a death, or startling her with a gunshot.

[2] Half a century later, at least one student at St. Cyprian’s School in East Sussex, eight-year-old Eric Blair (a.k.a. George Orwell), found in corporal punishment the seeds of self-improvement. “I knew that bed-wetting was (a) wicked and (b) outside my control,” he wrote. “[T]his was the great, abiding lesson of my boyhood: that I was in a world where it was not possible for me to be good.” Shortly after a disciplinarian broke a riding crop on Blair’s backside, the nightly accidents ceased.

By the late nineteenth century, nighttime wetting, like flushed cheeks, paleness, paralysis, and an inability to sit still, had been recognized as a symptom of masturbation. (Those who know Dora’s case history will recall this as Freud’s explanation of her childhood lapse into bed-wetting.) Like bed wetters, masturbators were subjected to a regimen of cold baths and hard beds, as well as all-purpose child whipping, though that could be a bit like pouring water on a grease fire: according to William Acton, a Victorian specialist in child sexuality, spankings were the cause of, not the remedy for, wetting and other nighttime accidents.[2] Nothing can make water flow upstream, of course, and the body’s tendency to leakage, particularly the boy’s body, was troubling. (Girls are more prone to diurnal enuresis, or daytime accidents, while boys are more frequent nocturnal enuretics.) Experts were required. At a time when households in London were piling excrement in their cellars, damp sheets did not quite amount to a public-health crisis, but close living quarters, institutional residences, and the social unpleasantness of foul-smelling domestic servants made it a problem of not insignificant medical interest. Unlike self-abuse, it was a practice that all parties were united in their efforts to eradicate.

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’s last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Making a Scene,” appeared in the May issue.

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