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Can Fam Physician. 2010 October; 56(10): 986–987.
PMCID: PMC2954072

Gairdner was wrong

George C. Denniston, MD MPH
President and Chief Executive Officer

Metcalfe and Elyas have produced a truly excellent paper1 that should become a classic. We would recommend it to anyone.

Having said that, we do have one quibble with this paper. The authors cited Wright2 when discussing complications of circumcision. Wright also said the following:

Gairdner’s otherwise masterly description contained one inaccuracy. He said that the foreskin should be fully retractable by three years of age. Clinical observation reveals that this is not true. It should be open and beginning to retract by three years of age but full retractability may not be achieved [until] many years later. Indeed nature will not permit the assignment of a strict timetable to this process.2

Inexplicably, Metcalfe and Elyas then quoted Gairdner’s inaccurate figures on the development of foreskin retractility.

Gairdner, for whom we generally have the very highest respect, reported in his classic paper that he used a probe to break the normal fusion between the inner surface of the foreskin and the underlying glans penis to create a retractable foreskin, and thus avoid a circumcision.3 But he also said that “it is inadvisable as a routine procedure.”

Gairdner’s bar graph shows a steep increase in retractility from birth to age 3 years. This does not occur in nature; it is possible that these values were obtained by the use of the probe. In any event, they have been disproved by later research. In actuality, development of retractility tends to be much slower.

Gairdner’s values for the development of foreskin retractility stood alone and unchallenged for decades, during which they were quoted by the authors of numerous textbooks.4 Unfortunately, thousands of physicians the world over have been trained with these false values. This undoubtedly has contributed to false diagnoses of pathological phimosis and large numbers of medically unnecessary amputations of healthy nonretractile foreskins in many nations.

Øster,5 Kayaba et al,6 Morales Concepción et al,7 Agarwal et al,8 and Ko et al9 all have demonstrated that the development of preputial retraction is a very gradual and variable event that occurs between birth and the completion of puberty. Moreover, Thorvaldsen and Meyhoff carried out a survey in Denmark and reported that the mean age of first foreskin retraction is 10.4 years.10 All of these authors provide evidence that refutes Gairdner’s 1949 data.

Gairdner’s values for foreskin retraction belong in a museum of medical history, but they should not be applied in current clinical practice.


1. Metcalfe PD, Elyas R. Foreskin management. Survey of Canadian pediatric urologists. Can Fam Physician. 2010;56:e290–5. Available from: Accessed 2010 Sep 9. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
2. Wright JE. Further to “the further fate of the foreskin.” Update on the natural history of the foreskin. Med J Aust. 1994;160(3):134–5. [PubMed]
3. Gairdner D. The fate of the foreskin, a study of circumcision. Br Med J. 1949;2(4642):1433–7. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
4. Hill G. Circumcision for phimosis and other medical indications in Western Australian boys. Med J Aust. 2003;178(11):587. [PubMed]
5. Øster J. Further fate of the foreskin. Incidence of preputial adhesions, phimosis, and smegma among Danish schoolboys. Arch Dis Child. 1968;43(228):200–3. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
6. Kayaba H, Tamura H, Kitajima S, Fujiwara Y, Kato T, Kato T. Analysis of shape and retractability of the prepuce in 603 Japanese boys. J Urol. 1996;156(5):1813–5. [PubMed]
7. Morales Concepción JC, Cordiés Jackson E, Guerra Rodríguez M, Mora Casacó B, Morales Aranegui A, González Fernández P. Should circumcision be performed in childhood? [article in Spanish] Arch Esp Urol. 2002;55(7):807–11. [PubMed]
8. Agarwal A, Mohta A, Anand RK. Preputial retraction in children. J Indian Assoc Pediatr Surg. 2005;10(2):89–91.
9. Ko MC, Liu CK, Lee WK, Jeng HS, Chiang HS, Li CY. Age-specific prevalence rates of phimosis and circumcision in Taiwanese boys. J Formos Med Assoc. 2007;106(4):302–7. [PubMed]
10. Thorvaldsen MA, Meyhoff HH. Pathological or physiological phimosis? [article in Danish] Ugeskr Læger. 2005;167(17):1858–62. [PubMed]

Articles from Canadian Family Physician are provided here courtesy of College of Family Physicians of Canada