That is an attention-grabbing title, right? It is the kind of story that people will read and remember. And there was such a story that emerged during the American Civil War. It involved a field doctor’s published report of a man who was shot through the scrotum and the bullet subsequently got lodged in a woman and ended up impregnating her. The story grabbed the imagination of people for many years.
Rose Eveleth describes the full story but then writes:
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.”
Eveleth recounts many stories like this that grab the imagination of people and enter the folklore, never to die. This is especially true when the subject matter is science-related. There are many apocryphal stories about science and scientists that are passed on by scientists to their students because they humanize scientists and make the science memorable. Unfortunately, they are often wrong.