Spoof Nobel Prize goes to imaging study with sharp point

April 1, 2008

A British radiologist has won a spoof Nobel Prize for research documenting medical complications caused by the ancient art of sword swallowing.

Dr. Brian Witcombe, a consultant radiologist at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital, collaborated with Dan Meyer, executive director of the Sword Swallowers' Association International on the study. Interviews with experienced sword swallowers revealed that lower chest pain, often lasting days, followed some performances. Six subjects had suffered perforation of the pharynx or esophagus, and three others had probable perforations over time. Sixteen mentioned intestinal bleeding, varying from finding some blood on a withdrawn sword to hematemeses requiring blood transfusion.

The findings earned Witcombe and Meyer an Ig Nobel Award from the Annals of Improbable Research in October 2007.

Though distinctive, the study by Witcombe and Meyer is not the first radiographic inquiry to examine medical aspects of sword swallowing. Drs. Rienhart Wolf and Allard Krikke from Groningen University Hospital in the Netherlands displayed a stunning poster, "The X files of sword swallowing" at the 1998 RSNA meeting. X-rays acquired from a carnival performer found that sword swallowing requires extreme control over the voluntary musculature of the oropharynx and laryngopharynx and active inhibition of the involuntary circopharyngeus muscle, they reported. The gag reflex is suppressed, and in a single gentle, smooth movement, a three-foot long sword can be advanced deep into the esophagus until it reaches the lower esophageal sphincter.

—By Philip Ward