Ho rmones! The Very Idea!
The gonads, people have long known, affect the body and psyche in myriad ways. For centuries, farmers have known that castration affects both the physique and behavior of farm animals. And although human castration was officially banned by the Vatican, in Europe the specialized singing voices of the castrati were heard in more than a few church choirs through the end of the
nineteenth century. These castrated boys grew into tall and unusual shapes while their tremulous sopranos attained an odd, otherworldly quality.13 During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, surgeons frequently removed the ovaries of women they deemed ‘‘insane, hysterical, unhappy, difficult for their husbands to control or disliked running a household.’’14 But why such drastic measures seemed to work was less than certain. Most nineteenth – century physiologists postulated that the gonads communicated their effects through nervous connections.
Others, however, found evidence that the gonads acted via chemical secretions. In 1849 Arnold Adolf Berthold, Professor of Physiology at the University of Gottingen, ‘‘transformed languid capons into fighting roosters.’’ First he created the capons by removing their testicles, then he implanted the disconnected gonads into the birds’ body cavities. Because the implants were unconnected to the nervous system, he surmised that any effects they might have must be blood-borne. Berthold started with four birds: two received the testicular implants and two did not. In his inimitable style, de Kruif described the results: ‘‘While the two caponized birds. . . became fat pacifists, these other two. . . remained every inch roosters. They crowed. They battled. They chased hens enthusiastically. Their bright red combs and wattles kept on growing’’15 (figure 6.1).
Berthold’s results languished until 1889, when the French physiologist Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard reported to his colleagues at the Societe de Biologie in Paris that he had injected himself with extracts made from crushed guinea pig and dog testicles. The results, he said, were spectacular. He experienced a renewed vigor and increased mental clarity. He also reported on female patients whose physical and mental health had improved after taking the filtered juice of guinea pig ovaries.16 Although many physicians responded to Brown-Sequard’s claims with more than a little skepticism, the idea of organotherapy—treatment with organ extracts—gained enormous popularity. While physiologists debated the truth of the claims, sales of ‘‘extracts of animal organs, gray matter, testicular extract,’’ for the treatment of ‘‘locomotor ataxia, neurasthenia and other nervous diseases’’ were brisk in both Europe and the United States.17 Within a decade, however, the new treatments fell into disrepute. Brown-Sequard admitted that the effects of his testicular injections were short-lived, probably the result of the power of suggestion. While gonadal extracts failed to live up to their promise, two other organ treatments did offer medical benefits: extracts made from the thyroid gland proved effective in the treatment of thyroid disorders, and adrenal extracts worked as vasoconstrictors.18
Despite such successes, research physiologists remained skeptical of the
FIGURE 6 . I : Berthold’s gonad transfer experiments. (Source: Alyce Santoro, for the author)
chemical message idea implicit in organotherapy.19 Nineteenth-century physiologists’ firm belief that the nervous system controlled bodily functions made it difficult, at first, to recognize the significance of chemical messengers, the products of internal organ secretions.