The Search for Dr. Condom, Birth-Control Pioneer

The word ‘condom’ doesn’t really linguistically mean anything or make any sense. One theory is that Charles II had a physician, Dr. Condom, who prescribed him cloth models when he couldn’t stop having illegitimate children. But that story is probably fake. Dr. Condom, where are you?
The Search for Dr. Condom, Birth-Control Pioneer

The similarity between “condom” and “condo”/“condominium” is a great source of amusement for non-Americans — “looking for third male to share small condo in Boston” is a normal classified ad to some eyes, and bafflingly hilarious to others.

But “condominium,” as a word, does make some sense. “Con” means “with” in Latin, “dominium” means “ownership,” so it all kind of works. Obviously “condom” would be a more sensible shortening of the word — neo-conservative is shortened to “neo-con,” not “neo-co,” non-domicile tax statis gets shorted to “non-dom.” But “condo” it is.

Because, obviously, “condom” is a word for a thing — a contraceptive device, 98 percent effective when used correctly, less so when kept in a wallet for five years. About half a billion are made and used every year — there’s a lot of them around. But the word itself is something of a mystery. There’s no known etymology for “condom,” but it’s never really questioned. It’s just, that’s what one of those is called.

The word is sometimes said to have come from the name of Dr. Condom, a personal physician to the King Charles II and someone who did his best to keep the ruler out of trouble. It doesn’t initially seem out of the question. Condon, ending in an N, is a reasonably common Irish surname — the movie Kinsey was directed by Bill Condon, for instance, while The Banshees of Inisherin co-stars Kerry Condon. A royal doctor with a similar name prescribing dong-bags to the head of state seems totally plausible.

But let’s just jump back a bit. Charles II was a bit of a wild dude. He was known in some circles as the Merry Monarch due to his hedonistic ways — he became king during a Puratanical era and did his best to stamp it out by being fairly open about his own life as much as possible. He named a royal yacht, HMY Fubbs, after a nickname for one of his mistresses. He had at least 12 illegitimate children that he acknowledged, by seven different women, and unknown numbers of unacknowledged ones. He allowed female actors to appear on stage (something that was previously forbidden), a progressive move but also one that allowed him to, uh, have sex with lots of actresses. (Nell Gwyn, one of the most celebrated actresses of the time and a contender for the title of the first-ever “celebrity” in the modern sense of the word, is said to have introduced her six-year-old son to the king with the words, “Come here, you little bastard, and say hello to your father.”)

Charles also owned a racehorse, Old Rowley, which was renowned for its potency, impregnating any female horse that came anywhere near it. This eventually led to Old Rowley becoming another nickname for the king, something that allowed people to sing bawdy, offensive songs about a horny horse fucking everything in which they were manifestly referring to the king — a bit of light, sexy treason everyone could enjoy.

Dr. Condom, the story goes, presented the king with linen condoms to stop him siring any more illegitimate children. While linen seems like an unusual choice due to being extremely porous, it would do something, even if just by removing the bulk. Italian anatomist Gabriele Falloppia is said to be the person who popularized the idea, but having already given his name to fallopian tubes, could hardly slap his name on sheaths. Casanova was a big fan of linen condoms — which he referred to as “English overcoats” and occasionally inflated to entertain people — and died with a lot of venereal diseases, but only a few children, so well done linen.

The tale of Dr. Condom seems to stem from a 1667 poem by John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, entitled A Panegyric Upon Cundum. The poem is something of a love letter (a “panegyric” is basically a formal tribute) to the inventor of condoms, both for preventing illegitimate children and avoiding venereal disease. As the British Medical Journal points out, “plainly his enthusiasm was in vain, for Rochester died in his prime of venereal disease.” In fact, he kicked the bucket at 33, after having famously lost his nose to syphilis. 

However, historians investigating the story have found no evidence of Dr. Condom’s existence, just secondhand mentions of him, occasionally using other spellings — Dr. Condon, Dr. Condum, etc. — that cite Rochester’s poem. The 1785 book A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a key text in swearing studies, calls the character Colonel Cundum. 

But at some point, Rochester’s poem may have been conflated with real life. Rochester himself — who was a sleazy, amoral operator — briefly used the name Dr. Bendo, presenting himself as a physician who could cure infertility in women. He did this by impregnating them. His ruse went even further, occasionally involving dressing as a woman and presenting himself as Mrs. Bendo when dealing with his patients’ husbands. He was, again, a real turd.

It’s possible that Rochester’s tribute to Dr. Condom was slightly facetious, an elaborately over-the-top paean to jimmy-hats that also functioned as a massive boast. Nothing says “this guy fucks” like a heartfelt ode to how much trouble you’d be in if condoms didn’t exist. Rather than a genuine tribute to a real figure, Rochester may have just been showing off about just how much sex he was having. And, potentially, this got slightly mixed up with his own antics and created the impression there was a real historical figure named Dr. Condom. 

This confusion would only have been added to by people being extremely cagey around the subject. For some 200 years, the word was largely avoided in polite society — even when AIDS first reared its head, advice on safe sex was delivered euphemistically. In 1986, when the surgeon general gave advice on using condoms, his language created a minor furor. The New York Times wrote, “For good reason, the word condom is no longer taboo. ... In a conflict between public health and genteel language, health cannot lose. ... Readers must get used to the word in print and everyday parlance.”

So, if there was no Dr. Condom, where does the word come from? Nobody is entirely sure. One school of thought connects it with the Italian word guantone, meaning “glove,” while others link it with the Latin word condon, meaning “receptacle.” Alternatively, the latter part may come from duma, meaning “dome,” and the former part from con, either meaning “with” or “vagina.” There is also speculation it has something to do with the beautiful French town of Condom-en-Armagnac, by all accounts a lovely spot.

But ultimately nobody knows. The one thing we can be sure of, though, is that it didn’t come from a cheerful royal doctor urging the king to wrap it up before he slapped it up.

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