THE QUEST FOR TESTES AND MALE URINE
The success story of access to new sources for female sex hormones cannot be told about male sex hormones. Research on male sex hormones was far more constrained by the limited availability of organic material than was research on female sex hormones. In the early years, female gonads had been relatively easy for gynecologists to obtain because human ovaries were regularly removed in the clinic (Zondek and Finkelstein 1966: 6). However, no comparable clinical practice, in which healthy or affected testes were removed, existed for the male body (T. Laqueur 1990:176). Consequently, human testes were very difficult to obtain. Scientists even awaited executions in prisons to gather these materials (Hamilton 1986). This difficulty led to the search for other sources of male hormones. After the isolation of female sex hormones from the urine of pregnant women in 1929, it was not surprising that laboratory scientists began to examine human urine for male sex hormones (Koch 1939).
Remarkably, the availability of urine as a source to obtain male sex hormones did not have the same impact on research as it had had on research on female sex hormones. Male urine was a suitable source in theory, but not in practice, simply because there was no institutional context for its collection, as there was for female urine. Men’s clinics specializing in the study of the male reproductive system did not exist in the 1920s. The collection of urine from male patients in normal hospitals could not solve the problem, because the content of male sex hormones in the urine of sick males turned out to be much lower than in the urine of healthy men (J. Freud 1930). Nor was animal urine a solution, because it contained very little male hormone. Human urine appeared to be unique with respect to male hormonal content (Gustavson 1939). Thus scientists remained totally dependent on human male urine.
How did scientists eventually gain access to male urine? To collect it, scientists had to look for institutions other than the clinic—places where men regularly gathered, like big factories or other male occupational spheres. In 1931, the German chemist Adolf Butenandt collected 25,000 liters of men’s urine in the police barracks in Berlin, from which he isolated 50 mg of a crystalline substance to which he subsequently gave the name “androsterone” in the belief that it was the essential male hormone (Parkes 1966:25). However, this supply of male urine was quite problematic. Scientists had to rely on the delivery of male urine from institutions in which the collection of urine was not a common practice. Both German and Dutch scientists described how difficult it was to gain access to male urine in these institutions. Butenandt’s colleague Koch described how it took Butenandt two years before he could obtain enough material to revise the formulae and potency of the male sex hormone he had isolated in 1931. (Koch 1936) Laqueur, in his function as a member of the board of Organon, had to take great pains to obtain permission from the Ministry of Defence and the directors of prisons to collect male urine in military barracks and penitentiaries. In 1930, Laqueur addressed the Ministry of Defence, formulating his request as follows:
In order to produce male sex hormone preparations, it is absolutely necessary to have access to a large quantity of raw material, in this case a large amount of urine from not too elderly men. Although this material is abundant in rather huge quantities and has the additional advantage of being valueless, it is very difficult to collect…. The production of female sex hormones only succeeded thanks to the cooperation of directors of women’s clinics and midwife schools. In concluding, I want to emphasize the scientific and therapeutic interests that are at stake and that legitimize your cooperation in order to obtain the required raw material from the barracks.14
Organon first obtained male urine from its German subsidiary in Berlin, Degewop; later Organon obtained the urine from Dutch factories, military barracks and penitentiaries.15 The supply of male urine remained, however, problematic. Laqueur again, in 1933:
Hombreol is very expensive, because large quantities of raw material are required for the production of this hormone. The collection and transport of the large quantities of male urine is very difficult and expensive.
Thus, scientists had once again to rely on the pharmaceutical companies for their supply. In Germany, the collection and processing of the urine was carried out by the pharmaceutical company Schering AG (Tausk 1978:56). Dutch scientists could profit once more from their close cooperation with Organon, which provided them with the large quantities of urine required for research on male sex hormones.
It was only when male sex hormones could be made synthetically, and organic materials were no longer needed, that an increase took place in research on male sex hormones. The chemical characterization of male sex hormones, and their synthesis in 1936, made possible a burst of biochemical and biological work (Parkes 1966:25; Tschopp 1935). At last scientists could easily gain access to male sex hormones. The pharmaceutical companies could provide them with any quantity of synthetic male sex hormones they needed. Research was stimulated by the distribution of a wide range of male sex hormones by the pharmaceutical companies (Parkes 1966:25).16 The number of research publications on male sex hormones that appeared in the 1920s and 1930s indicates the impact of this synthetic supply.17
The chemical identification of sex hormones also provided scientists with the means to synthesize modified sex hormones. This specific episode in the history of male sex hormones illustrates nicely that sex hormones are not entities that only had to be “discovered” in nature (i. e. biological material), but that sex hormones were objects constructed in the laboratory as materializations of particular ideas about what sex hormones should look like. With the influx of biochemists into the field of sex hormones, the purification of these substances evolved into one of the major aims of research in the 1930s. In this process of purification, scientists were, however, confronted with specific problems. Purified preparations of testes and male urine did not produce the responses expected from male sex hormone. In 1937, Laqueur’s research group described these problems:
It is evident now that these preparations produce only a very moderate growth of the sexual organs in castrated infantile rats and mice, compared to what we reasonably would have expected. We succeeded, however, in strengthening the activity of male sex hormones.. .by means of the addition of estrone [at that time still known as the female sex hormone par excellence!]. A complete substitution for the testes remained, however, an unapproachable ideal.. It cannot be denied that the esterification of male hormone preparations has led to substances which almost reach our ideal of a “male hormone”: the complete restitution of the castrate is no longer impossible, at least in animal experiments.
Because the purified hormone preparations of organic material did not have the quality scientists expected, chemists constructed the male sex hormone by the esterification of testes preparations. Thus, only by chemical modification could scientists materialize the “ideal male sex hormone”. In 1934, Marius Tausk, the medical director of Organon, evaluated this development in the field of sex hormones:
The time has passed in which hormones were mythical substances. More and more we become informed about the chemical structure of these important elements of the organism, and science not only introduces the synthetic production of hormones, but also constructs transformations in the molecule, in order to improve the activity of the natural substances. Evidently, man attempts to be wiser than nature itself.
Summarizing the quest for male sex hormones, we can conclude that in this case (even more than for female sex hormones), laboratory scientists had to rely on the pharmaceutical companies to provide them with the required material. In contrast with female sex hormones, the study of male sex hormones was dominated from the beginning by two groups—the laboratory scientists and the pharmaceutical companies. The gynecol-ogists were more interested in the role of the ovaries in female disorders and focused only on the study of female sex hormones.