If choosing how to standardize hormonal measurements was crucial in consolidating their identities as sexual substances, so too was choosing what to call them. It was no random act of scientific purity to name male hormones ‘‘androgens,’’ female hormones ‘‘estrogens,’’ the hormone isolated first from urine collected in a police barracks (but later identified as the culprit found in the testes) ‘‘testosterone’’ (chemically speaking—a ketone steroid from the testis), and the hormone first crystallized from the urine of pregnant women (and later shown to exist in hog ovaries) ‘‘estrogen’’ or, more rarely, estrone (chemically speaking, a ketone related to estrus). Rather, these names became the standards only after considerable debate. They both reflected and shaped ideas about the biology of gender in the twentieth century.
During the early days of sex hormone research, investigators showed remarkable restraint. They did not name or define. Referring only to the ‘‘male hormone’’ and the ‘‘female hormone,’’ or occasionally their tissue of origin (as in the ‘‘ovarian hormone’’), they patiently awaited further clarification.81 By 1929, a number of contender names for the female hormone had been floated. The words ovarin, oophorin, biovar, protovar, jolliculin, jeminin, gynacin, and luteovar all referred to site of origin. In contrast, sistomensin (making the menses subside), agomensin (stimulating the menses), estrous hormone, and men – ojormon (causing the menses) all referred to proposed or demonstrated biolog-
FIGURE 7 . ^ : Naming the female hormone. (Source: Alyce Santoro, for the author)
ical actions. Some researchers preferred Greek constructs, hence the words thelykin (thelys = the feminine: kineo = I set going), theelin, theeol, and for the male hormone, androkynin. Tokokinins signified “the procreative hormone (Zeugungshormon) applicable to both male and female’’ (see figure 7.^). But the definitive moment had not arrived. Frank, for example, felt that “the term female sex hormone covers all needs until we know more about the substance itself. The term is applicable to any substance which either increases or actually establishes feminine characteristics and feminineness.’’82
In the early 1930s the terms male and female hormone began to loosen their grip. In 1931, the author of a research paper referred to an ‘‘ambosex – ual’’ hormone (one having actions in both sexes); in 1933, a researcher noted the ‘‘so-called female sex hormone.’’ In 1937, the Quarterly Cumulative Index Medicus introduced the terms androgens (to build a man) and estrogens (to create estrus) to its subject index, and within a few years these words had taken hold.83 But not without some jockeying and debate. Two interrelated problems emerged: what to call the male and female hormones (of which it was then known there were clearly several), and how to refer to their contrary locations and actions (female hormones in stallion urine).
Using the word estrus (meaning‘‘gadfly,’’ ‘‘crazy,’’ ‘‘wild,’’ ‘‘insane’’) as the root on which biochemists built female hormone names happened over drinks ‘‘in a place of refreshment near University College,’’ when the endocrinologist A. S. Parkes and friends coined the term estrin.84 One of the participants in this brainstorming session found the choice ‘‘a happy thought which gave us a satisfactory general term and a philologically manageable stem upon which to base all the new nouns and adjectives that physiologists and organic chemists soon needed.’’85 In 1935, the Sex Hormone Committee of the Health Organization of the League Nations chose the name ‘‘estradiol’’ for the substance isolated from sow ovaries, thus linking the concept of estrus with the terminology of the organic chemist.
By 1936, scientists had crystallized at least seven estrogenic molecules. The Council on Pharmacy and Chemistry of the American Medical Association wrestled with what to call them. With Doisy on the committee, there was a lot of sympathy for calling the female hormone theelin, the word he had coined. But it turned out that Parke, Davis and Company had already marketed their purified estrin under the ‘‘theelin’’ trademark, thus making the word unavailable for general use. That made using the root estrus the next best choice. Unfortunately, Parke, Davis and Company had also trademarked the word estrogen, but on request from the Council on Pharmacy and Chemistry, the company gave up its proprietary rights to the name, and the Council adopted the word as a generic term.86 The Council accepted the common names estrone, estriol, estradiol, equilin, and equilenin (the latter two being chemicals found in mare’s urine). They also retained the names theelin, theeol, and dihydrotheelin as synonyms for estrone, estriol, and estradiol.87
The die had been cast, although for a few more years people would continue to suggest modifications. Parkes, for instance, with an ever-growing awareness of the diverse biological effects of the female hormone complex, proposed a new term, which would make the naming system for male and female hormones parallel. ‘‘One hesitates to advocate the use of new words,’’ he wrote, ‘‘but obvious anomalies are becoming evident in the description of certain activities of the sex hormones.’’ The terms androgenic and estrogenic, he remarked, had been introduced to ‘‘promote clear thinking and precision of expression. . . but it is now evident that [the terms] are inadequate.’’ The word estrogenic, he argued, should apply only and literally to substances that produce changes in the estrus cycle. Noting that the ability of estrogen to feminize bird plumage, for example, could hardly be called estrogenic, in the literal meaning of the word, Parkes proposed that gynoecogenic be ‘‘used as a general term to describe activity which results in the production of the attributes of femaleness.’’88 But his proposal came too late. The nonparallel nomenclature—androgens for the male hormone group, estrogens for the collection of female hormones—took hold. Eventually, terms with the root thelys,
which denoted not the reproductive cycle but the more general concept of the feminine, dropped from common usage, and thus the ideal of female hormones became inextricably linked to the idea of female reproduction.
Naming the male hormone group, meanwhile, had been fairly simple. A review of androgen biochemistry did not even note the naming question, although the companion article on the biochemistry of estrogenic compounds devoted four pages to nomenclature.89 With only one exception, the male hormone name simply combined the Greek root for man (‘‘andrus’’) with the technical naming systems of the biochemist. Only for the molecule we now call testosterone (and its derivatives) did the more specific term, testis, provide the etymological building block.
By the mid-i93os then, scientists had crystallized the hormones, agreed on the best way to measure them, and named them. Only one problem remained. If androgens made men and estrogens produced a distinctly female mating frenzy, then how ought these hormones to be categorized when they not only showed up in the wrong body but seemed to have physiological effects as well? Korenchevsky and co-workers referred to such hormones as ‘‘bisexual’’ and proposed to group both androgens and estrogens according to this property. Only one hormone (progesterone—from the corpus luteum) could they envision as purely male or female. They designated a second group as ‘‘partially bisexual,’’ some with chiefly male properties, others with predominantly female ones. Finally, they proposed the existence of ‘‘true bisexual hormones,’’ ones that cause a return to ‘‘the normal condition of all the atrophied sex organs… to the same degree in both male and female rats.’’90 Testosterone belonged to this group.
In 1938 Parkes suggested a different tack. He disliked the term bisexual because it implied ‘‘having sexual feeling for both sexes’’ and proposed instead the term ambisexual, which could, he felt, ‘‘be applied with perfect propriety to substances. . . which exhibit activities pertaining to both sexes.’’91 These fine distinctions never took hold. Even today the classification question dogs the steps of biologists, especially those interested in correlating hormones with particular sexual behaviors.