Using Hormones to Sex the Brain

By THE 1940s, HORMONE BIOLOGISTS, BIOCHEMISTS, AND REPRODUC­tive endocrinologists had identified, crystallized, named, and classified a host of new hormones. They had also outlined the roles of hormones—both go­nadal and pituitary—in the control of the reproductive cycle, leaving re­searchers poised to look more seriously at the possibility that hormones regu­lated human behavior. The study of the chemical physiology of behavior came into its own, beginning in the late 1930s, as the old institutional and funding coalitions that had facilitated and directed the blossoming ofhormone biology experienced a sea change.1

Until 1933, the Rockefeller Foundation had funneled its support of sex research through the social service-oriented Bureau of Social Hygiene, but then the Foundation took over direct funding of the Committee for Research in Problems of Sex (CRPS).2 The transfer marked a transition from the devel­opment of national science in direct service to social change to one in which the scientists themselves developed research agenda, which appeared, at least on the surface, to be motivated solely by the ideal of knowledge for knowl­edge’s sake.3 As early as 1928, CRPS had signaled this change in its new five – year plan. ‘‘Modern science,’’ CRPS committee members had written, ‘‘par­ticularly experimental medicine, has shown that the greatest benefits to man­kind have come from fundamental researches, the implications of which could not be foreseen. . . . Pressing social and medical problems’’would most likely only be solved by first obtaining a scientific understanding of human sex – uality.4

The Rockefeller Foundation took over the Committee for Research in Problems of Sex just as the conservative engineer Warren Weaver became the full-time director of Rockefeller’s Division of Natural Sciences. Weaver

consolidated a growing movement among biologists who argued that the next round of great advances would come from the application of the laws of physi­cal science to biology. He began his tenure by enthusiastically emphasizing the close relationship between psychobiology and his arena in the natural

sciences:

Can man gain intelligent control of his own power? Can we develop so sound and extensive a genetics that we can hope to breed, in the future, superior men? Can we obtain enough knowledge of physiology and psy­chobiology of sex so that man can bring this pervasive. . . highly danger­ous aspect of life under rational control? Can we unravel the tangled prob­lem of the endocrine glands, and develop, before it is too late, a therapy for the whole hideous range of mental and physical disorders which result from glandular disturbances? . . . Can we, in short, create a new science of Man?5

Soon, however, Weaver’s interest in psychobiology waned, while his focus on the newly named area of molecular biology waxed. Between 1934 and 1938, support for those fields of endocrine and reproductive biology with practical or clinical application declined, and in 1937 an official division of labor between the natural and the medical sciences became part of the Foun­dation’s formal structure. Endocrinology and sex biology left Weaver’s pur­view, enabling him to concentrate on the development of genetics, cell physi­ology, and biochemistry.6

By the 1940s, relatively little CRPS funding went to research in basic hor­mone biology. ‘‘Although much. . . remained to be learned about the relation of the hormones to sex behavior, it seemed that emphasis need no longer be placed upon the hormones themselves.’’7 More and more, the committee funded research into the relationships among the hormones, the nervous sys­tem, and behavior. While Terman’s work on masculinity, femininity, and the family continued to receive funding until after World War II, Yerkes and his heir-apparent, C. R. Carpenter, had turned to the study of dominance and sexual hierarchies in semiwild primate populations.8 At the same time new voices—including that of the young Frank A. Beach, who was to become dean of the next generation of animal psychologists—appeared on the scene, a stage now set to apply the insights of science to the complexities of animal behavior. This new crop of researchers worked originally in the fields of em­bryology, comparative animal psychology, and ethology.9 They could see the power of the new research tools—purified hormone preparations, using sur­gery to remove particular endocrine organs—and had at least a general idea

of which organs made which hormones.10 In the beginning, they studied a variety of species, but as time passed, the laboratory rodent—especially the rat and the guinea pig—emerged as premier models with which to explore hormones and sex-related behaviors in mammals.11

How did scientific experiments on hormones and behavior shape rodent masculinity and femininity from 1940 to the present? Often, culturally pro­moted ideas about human masculinity and femininity seemed to parallel the rat experiments. But I claim neither that culture functioned as puppeteer to the science, nor that our social structures were mere marionettes animated by the nature of bodies under study or scientists’ findings about hormones. Instead, I see a fertile field of co-production—what the literary critic Susan Squier calls a ‘‘a thick and busy trading zone of boundary crossing and rela­tionship.’’12

In this chapter I follow the journey of the masculine and feminine rodent as it scurries through Scienceville. Just as I argued that different medical ap­proaches to intersexuality lead to differently embodied gender in humans, here I suggest that we can do a different, and I believe better, job of envisioning the manly—and not-so-manly—rat and, by extension, a different and better job of envisioning human sexuality without falling into the nature/nurture abyss.