A radio programme on the world's first ever penis transplant had me staring at the radio

The interviewer, Matthew Bannister – generally known for keeping conversations moving dizzyingly ever forwards – was unusually quiet.

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An interview with the South African surgeon who late last year performed the first ever successful penis transplant, using a donor organ on a 21-year-old man, had me looking at the radio quizzically until the broadcast finished (17 May, 7.30am). So many questions left unanswered . . .

Professor André van der Merwe, from the Western Cape, explained that his patient’s own penis had “dropped off” following a botched circumcision of the kind ritually performed at a coming-of-age ceremony, which concludes with the removal of the foreskin with a spear. The penis is then wrapped in the skin of a goat, but if it is swaddled too tightly gangrene can set in. Could the good doctor elaborate?

“Well, a variety of things happen,” said Professor van der Merwe, “but with full-length gangrene it just falls off at the level of the abdomen, leaving a centi­metre stump.”

The interviewer, Matthew Bannister – generally known for keeping conversations moving dizzyingly ever forwards – was unusually quiet. How much did the donor’s family know of the particulars of his post-mortem generosity? In the Cape, where western medicine is greatly frowned on, such a mind-watering transaction would surely be taboo? And what of the vexed question of sizing? The complications!

Yet the operation had been an unmitigated success. His patient, the professor continued, had had sexual intercourse just five weeks after the op. Bannister’s shock was titanic. “FIVE WEEKS!” he yelled. Van der Merwe’s voice, too, was a study in awe. “We did not expect that at all. Not at all.” Bannister – strangled – managed to carry on: “Did you think it might have been more like . . . a year or so?”

“I was thinking at least two years,” confessed the doctor, who sighed and wrapped things up – although perhaps now with an infinitesimal bat-squeak of pride. “Ah, how wrong I was.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition