The Coming and Going of Cello Scrotum

A look at a transitory medical concept
by Alice Shirrell Kaswell, Improbable Research staff

The years 1974–2009 saw the inspiration, birth, and death of a medical ailment that puzzled some physicians, inspired others, and perhaps made no impact upon most. Its history played out in the pages of several medical journals. Here are glimpses at the most pertinent chapters.

Hello, Guitar Nipple

“Guitar Nipple,” P. Curtis, British Medical Journal, April 27, 1974, p. 226. The author, in Winchester, UK explains:

I have recently seen three patients with traumatic mastitis of one breast. These were all girls aged between 8 and 10 and the mastitis consisted of a slightly inflamed cystic swelling about the base of the nipple. Questioning revealed that all three were learning to play the classical guitar, which requires close attention to the position of the instrument in relation to the body. In each case a full-sized guitar was used and the edge of the soundbox pressed against the nipple. Two of the patients were right-handed and consequently had a right-sided mastitis while the third was left-handed with a left-sided mastitis. When the guitar playing was stopped the mastitis subsided spontaneously.

Hello, Cello Scrotum

“Cello Scrotum,” J.M. Murphy, British Medical Journal, May 11, 1974, p. 335. The author, in Chalford, Gloucester, U.K., explains:

Though I have not come across ‘guitar nipple’ as reported by Dr. P. Curtis (27 April, p. 226), 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.

Cello Scrotum Questioned

“’Cello Scrotum’ Questioned,” Philip E. Shapiro, Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, vol. 24, no. 4, April 1991, p. 665. The author, at Yale University, explains:

I question the accuracy of the information under the designation of “cello scrotum.” The authors cite just one case, which is not their own. That case consists of a brief (9-line) letter to the editor in which the author states that a professional cellist had “cello scrotum” caused by “irritation from the body of the cello.” I find this a bit puzzling. When the cello is held in typical playing position, the body of the instrument is not near the scrotum. Contact of the body of the cello with the scrotum would require an extremely awkward playing position, which I have never seen a playing cellist assume.

Goodbye, Cello Scrotum

“Cello Scrotum Confession,” Elaine Murphy and John M. Murphy, British Medical Journal, January 27, 2009, p. 288. (Thanks to Caroline Richmond and Kenneth Mackenzie for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, the former at the House of Lords in London, the latter at St Peter’s Brewery in Bungay, Suffolk, U.K., explain:

Perhaps after 34 years it’s time for us to confess that we invented cello scrotum. Reading Curtis’s 1974 letter to the BMJ on guitar nipple, we thought it highly likely to be a spoof and decided to go one further by submitting a letter pretending to have noted a similar phenomenon in cellists, signed by the non-doctor one of us (JMM). Anyone who has ever watched a cello being played would realise the physical impossibility of our claim.

Somewhat to our astonishment, the letter was published. The following Christmas we sent a card to Dr Curtis of guitar nipple fame, only to discover that he knew nothing about it—another joke we suspect. We have been dining out on this story ever since. We were thrilled once more to be quoted in [your recent article] “A symphony of maladies.”


This article is republished with permission from the March-April 2009 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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