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Beware of the dreaded tuba testes

I was watching the inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States last week, and during the part where French-born Chinese cellist Yo Yo Ma, Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman and Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero performed a piece by composer John Williams, I couldn’t help but wonder what clarinetist Anthony McGill, an actual American, was doing as part of the quartet.

But then I realized that with an Asian man, a Jewish man and a Latina woman already on stage to perform a white man’s music, the only racially harmonious choice left was a black man or a black woman, and since Aretha Franklin had just finished singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” the job had to go to a black man, lest that particular demographic be under-represented on such a momentous day.

While watching the quartet allegedly perform (it turns out they were actually pantomiming a performance they recorded two days earlier to ensure the cold didn’t upset the tuning of their instruments), I was looking at the odd smile on Yo Yo Ma’s face, and I started to think that maybe it was a grimace instead of a grin. That’s when a horrible thought occurred to me, and I said to myself, “Oh no, I hope he’s not suffering from cello scrotum.”

Thankfully, it seems I needn’t have worried. Apparently “cello scrotum,” a condition first mentioned in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 1974 and cited on a number of occasions since, was a hoax all along. The fictional ailment was merely a figment of the imagination of Elaine Murphy, a former professor at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, and her husband. The pair finally came clean earlier this week after cello scrotum was cited once again in the Christmas 2008 edition of the BMJ.

“Anyone who has ever watched a cello being played would realize the physical impossibility of our claim,” said Murphy, by way of explanation.

The cello scrotum flak began 35 years ago with a letter from Murphy and her husband to the BMJ. Having read about a similar condition called “guitar nipple,” which supposedly occurred when the edge of a guitar irritated the breast against which it was held, the Murphys thought it likely to be a spoof and decided to go one further. They penned a missive to the BMJ’s editor that read:

“Though I have not come across ‘guitar nipple’ as reported by Dr. P. Curtis, I did once come across a case of ‘cello scrotum’ caused by irritation from the body of the cello. The patient in question was a professional musician and played in rehearsal, practice, or concert for several hours each day.”

To the Murphys’ astonishment the letter was published, and some people actually took it seriously, including one scholar who theorized that it might in fact be awkward contact with the chair, rather than the cello itself, that caused the nonexistent irritation.

All told, the cello scrotum hoax was a fine jest, and we should consider ourselves fortunate that it took place in England, where people seem to have a much better sense of humor about such things than they do in America. Rather than getting angry over having been duped, the BMJ brushed it off by saying, “it all adds to the gaiety of life.” And in the single greatest bit of double entendre I’ve ever read, a BBC News article on the hoax mentioned that, “No one faced the sack for failing to spot the implausible condition.”

Imagine, though, if cello scrotum had first appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and American doctors had been misled for all these years. You know there’d be lawsuits. I can’t for the life of me imagine who would sue or what the basis of one’s suit would be, but still, this being America, I’m absolutely certain that some idiot stupid enough to believe in cello scrotum in the first place would try to take the Murphys to court.

In fact, I think I’m going to take the Murphys to court. Once upon a time I wanted nothing more than to be a cellist, but I was so worried about my scrotum that I didn’t dare take up the instrument. They made me believe my private parts were in danger, and they should pay.

Damn it, that should have been me up there performing that John Williams piece for Obama’s inauguration, if only I was able to somehow convince everyone I was a minority.

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Todd Hartley

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