There's an MP3 on the 'net right now purporting to be a "North Dakota weather alert" in which some reject from Fargo warns, "It is f'ing cold outside. Stay inside, dumbass. You will freeze your balls off." When I was growing up in upstate Pennsylvania, my father used to declare this would be the fate of a brass monkey exposed to the kind of cold we had in the mountains. The question is, has this oft-suggested scenario ever come to pass? Has any poor soul ever actually lost the family jewels to frostbite and survived the experience?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Not the most refined topic I’ve ever delved into, but hey, it can’t all be runcible spoons around here. Short answer first. I haven’t turned up any confirmed reports of family jewel loss. On the other hand, the family scepter, as it were … let’s say a few unfortunate individuals have come painfully close.
Now for the long answer. Implicit in the saying about brass monkeys is the sense that some male creatures are at greater risk than others of hypothermic genital separation. Clearly there are multiple issues nested in this seemingly simple question. Specifically: (a) Did it happen? (b) What happened exactly, to whom or what, to which extremity specifically, and under what meteorological conditions? (c) What was this poor soul/hapless beast/sad sack (sorry) up to when it did?
We turn to the case reports, organized by increasing degree to which the subjects’ plight strikes close to home:
Brass monkeys. Data on component failure among these proverbial simians are lacking. However, on browsing the technical literature, we find that brass valves work just fine on tanks of liquid nitrogen, which is typically chilled to around minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit. From this we extrapolate that, for a brass monkey, the odds of accidental cryoorchiectomy are vanishingly small.
Bulls. More commonly the victims of sheer heart-stopping frigidity aren’t ornamental metal animals but real ones, in particular bulls wintering outdoors in places like, yes, North Dakota. Ranchers’ bulletins and such are full of warnings about the dangers of scrotal frostbite. Although I haven’t come across a case of the affected organs literally falling off, serious damage does happen — bulls can become permanently sterile. The critical weather conditions: subzero temperatures plus strong wind.
Dogs. Specifically, Alaskan sled dogs, who are said to do their best work between 20 above and 20 below and will happily pull a sled a hundred miles. Leave it to their owners to decide they should race a thousand miles and freeze their tender vittles in the process. The event in question is the Iditarod, the annual dogsled race between Anchorage and Nome, decried by its critics as an extended exercise in animal cruelty. Often the majority of dogs on a team don’t finish the race due to exhaustion or injury (by one count more than 140 have died), and scrotal and penile frostbite are indeed among the many perils. The miracle is that casualties are so few. Lows can reach 40 or 50 below; the record wind chill figure for the race is minus 130.
Guys. The classic account was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1977 by a 53-year-old MD named Melvin Hershkowitz, who plied his trade in the desolate frontier outpost of Jersey City, New Jersey. Hershkowitz reports that the previous December he’d gone to a local park for his customary half-hour jog. Temperature: 18 degrees with a bitter wind chill. He was less than ideally dressed, wearing “flare-bottom double-knit polyester trousers, Dacron-cotton boxer-style undershorts, a cotton T-shirt and cotton dress shirt, a light-wound sweater, an outer nylon shell jacket … gloves, and low-cut Pro Ked sneakers.”
Twenty-five minutes into his run Hershkowitz began feeling “an unpleasant painful burning sensation at the penile tip,” which within five minutes had become excruciating. Returning home, he found “early frostbite of the penis. The glans was rigid, red, tender upon manipulation and anesthetic [i.e., insensitive] to light touch. Immediate therapy was begun.” This meant restoring the apparatus to warmth via manual contact. Full recovery took 15 minutes and would have been uneventful except that at minute 10 Hershkowitz’s wife showed up and found him “standing, legs apart, in the bedroom, nude below the waist, holding the tip of his penis in his right hand, turning the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine with his left.” Just reading the articles, I’m sure.
Things could have been worse. One hears of similarly stricken joggers who’ve had penile skin slough off, which may not be brass monkey syndrome exactly but is closer than I’d care to get.
We now have a more nuanced understanding of proverbial expressions for frigidity. Never mind metallic primates. Cold enough to freeze the delicate bits off a middle-aged doctor? Just means you’d better put another layer on. Frosty enough to do the same to an Alaskan sled dog? Now that, my friend, is cold.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.