In 1874, The American Medical Weekly published an article that was equal parts horrific and fascinating. The article was called, “Attention Gynaecologists!—Notes from the Diary of a Field and Hospital Surgeon, C. S. A.,” and it was a case study documenting something that a doctor, L.G. Capers, had seen in the field.
The story went like this: On May 12, 1863, at around 3 p.m., the battle of Raymond was raging. Confederate forces, led by Brigadier General John Gregg, were fighting Grant’s army, led by Major General John A. Logan. The clash took place about a mile from the town of Raymond, but just three hundred yards away stood a large home. Capers recounts that the women of the house—a lady and her two daughters, 15 and 17, respectively—were not hiding inside, but rather standing “bravely in front of their homestead, ready and eager to minister to their wounded countrymen...”
As the battle continued, the fighting got closer and closer to their home. Soon, it was just 150 feet away. But the women stayed outside, ready to assist any wounded men. The doctor, standing near the back of his battalion, saw a young man stagger toward him and fall to the ground. At the same moment, the doctor heard a scream from one of the ladies.
Investigating the fallen soldier, the doctor found “a compound fracture, with extensive comminution of the left tibia; the ball having ricochetted from these parts, and, in its onward flight, passed through the scrotum, carrying away the left testicle.” He then ran to the house, where the 17-year-old woman had suffered a terrible wound. “A minnie ball had penetrated the left abdominal parietes, about midway between the umbilicus and anterior spinal process of the ilium, and was lost in the abdominal cavity, leaving a ragged wound behind.” The doctor gave the poor woman anodyne and left, writing that he had little hope she would recover.
Six months later, the doctor wound up again in Raymond, only to find that the woman had indeed recovered. In fact she had recovered well enough to get herself pregnant. And a few months later, the very same doctor delivered the woman’s new child.
But there was something strange about the little boy. First, the woman claimed to have never had sex. The doctor said that her hymen was intact when she delivered the baby, but he waved off her assertions of virginity, since, after all, she was pregnant. A few weeks after delivery he saw the little boy again, and examined “an enlarged, swollen, sensitive scrotum, containing on the right side a hard, roughened substance, evidently foreign.” From the baby’s scrotum he removed a Minnie ball. According to his report, it took the doctor several days to figure out how this Minnie ball got into a baby’s scrotum, but he ultimately figured out what you might have already deduced:
The ball I took from the scrotum of the babe was the identical one which, on the 12th of May, shattered the tibia of my young friend, and in its mutilated condition, plunged through his testicle, carrying with it particles of semen and spermatozoa into the abdomen of the young lady, then through her left ovary, and into the uterus, in this manner impregnating her! There can be no other solution of the phenomenon!
Impregnated by a speeding bullet.
If this sounds extremely unlikely, that’s because it is. In fact, it never happened. The article in The American Medical Weekly was satire, a joke meant to poke fun at the aggrandized Civil War stories the doctor kept hearing. Two weeks later the journal ran an editor’s note clarifying that the piece had been a gag. But somehow, along the chain, the fact that it was a joke got lost. And the story of the impregnating bullet persisted as medical fact as late as 1959.
In 1982, the story was the subject of a Dear Abby column. The writer recounted the tale and ended with, “You don’t believe it? If it hadn’t been published in the very reliable American Heritage magazine (December 1971, page 99 in a story titled “The Case of the Miraculous Bullet”), I wouldn’t have believed it either.” Abby replied: “Several years ago I ran that item in this space, which brought me a letter from a 90-year-old South Dakota Indian. HE said he heard a different version of the same story. Only the girl wasn’t a Virginia farm girl, she was an Indian maiden who claimed she had been impregnated by a bow and arrow.”
(As an aside: L.G. Capers had submitted this tale under a pseudonym, not wanting his name to be attached to such a silly tale. But the editor of the journal recognized the doctor’s handwriting, and listed his real name prominently on the document.)
This is my favorite science myth, and there are so many to chose from. Have you heard the one about why there’s no Nobel Prize for math? Because Alfred Nobel’s wife was having an affair with a mathematician. A very good mathematician. A mathematician who might win a big prize in math, should there be one. Except Nobel didn’t even have a wife. And there’s no evidence that any woman in his life was having an affair with a mathematician.
Yet this story persists too. “You’d be hard pressed to take any upper-level university-level mathematics course and not hear some variation of this story at least once per term from your mathematics professor (I personally have heard it from three different mathematics professors, one physics professor, and one computer-science professor who was formerly a mathematics professor),” wrote Daven Hiskey for the website Today I Found Out.
There are tons of examples of these myths—whole books of them, even. One collection by Alberto Martinez is called Science Secrets, The Truth about Darwin’s Finches, Einstein’s Wife, and Other Myths, and it digs into several tales you may have heard: Darwin’s finches, Einstein’s wife secretly helping him write his theories, Ben Franklin’s famous kite-flying thunderstorm, the apple falling on Newton’s head. People like to think science is all about truth and evidence, but it’s full of myths too.
“Stories powerfully influence the public conception of science; true or false, they leave a deep impression on the imagination,” Martinez wrote. And the myths that stick around really do impact how people are taught and remember science. Stories make it easier for people to connect with and remember science. But some people argue that they also mislead people about how science works.
It’s hard to strike a balance between being responsible with history, and being a little too curmudgeonly about scientific myths. How do you balance not being “that guy” at the party, with making sure truth prevails? Douglas Allchin, a historian of science at the University of Minnesota and the author of Teaching the Nature of Science: Perspectives & Resources, writes that he doesn’t want to ban science history, but instead reshape it. “Rather, we need different types of history that convey the nature of science more effectively,” he said.
So here’s the call for you, scientists who’ve mucked things up, who haven’t managed to shift any paradigms, who’ve realized after years of work that your entire premise was flawed: Your stories may not be as exciting as a speeding bullet impregnating a woman, but they might be far more important.