[This is part of a series I’m doing here on Retrospectacle called ‘Science Vault.’ Pretty much I’m just going to dig back into the forgotten and moldering annuls of scientific publications to find weird and interesting studies that very likely would never be published or done today (and perhaps never should have.) I’ll probably try to do it once a week (and if you have suggestions, please do email me with them.)]
The development of surgical organ transplantation in humans will always be considered a landmark in medical science, and the scientists that pioneered the risky operations both brilliant and innovative. Well, most of those scientists anyway. One in particular, a surgeon by the name of Serge Voronoff, will live on in medical infamy for performing transplants which, while at the time (late 1800s) were lauded as genius, would eventually disgrace him. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that this surgeon was the student of Nobel Prize winner Alexis Carrel, from whom he had learned the technique of transplantation. The surgery’s aim was “rejuvenation” (anti-aging) and all began when Dr. Voronoff became interested in eunuchs and castration.
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Voronoff’s hypothesis was this: hormones, like testosterone produced by the testes, would reverse aging by a process he called “rejuvenation.” One of his first experiments used himself as a test subject. He injected ground up dog and guinea pig testicles under his own skin, but was disappointed when this did not result in any verifiable effect. He reasoned that living grafts of testicular tissue, rather than injections, would have a more dramatic and lasting rejuvenation effect.
This lead to cross-species glandular transplantation surgeries. His early experiments involved transplanting thyroid tissue into humans with a thyroid deficiency. He also began transplanting the testicles of executed criminals into rich old guys (as a treatment for senility and schizophrenia), but had to stop when the demand for the procedure far exceeding the supply of criminal testicles. At this point, Voronoff began using monkey testicles instead, and his first “monkey gland” to human transplant took place in June of 1920.
“I dare assert,” he wrote, “that the monkey is superior to man by the sturdiness of its body, the quality of its organs, and the absence of those defects, hereditary and acquired, with which the main part of mankind is afflicted.”
A thin slice of testicle would be inserted into the recipient’s scrotum, with the hope that it would fuse with the endogenous tissue. This…er…innovative approach was applauded by hundreds of the worlds leading surgeons at the International Congress of Surgeons in London in 1923. His work also delved into the transplantation of monkey ovaries into human women. He even went a bit further and transplanted a human ovary into a monkey, and then attempted to inseminate the monkey with human sperm. (It didn’t work.) Voronoff conducted extensive transplantation experiments within species as well: over 500 transplantations on sheep, goats, and a bull. These involved grafting testicular tissue from younger animals onto older animals, to measure whether they received “rejuvenation” and renewed vigor. His results showed a dramatic invigoration in before/after type pictures, published in respected journals from the Lancet to Scientific American.
The proposed effects of his human “monkey gland” surgery were far reaching, from improved sex drive to a cure for a myriad of mental disorders. By the Great Depression over 500 men had received Voronoff’s therapy, the demand becoming so high that he had to set up his own monkey farm to keep up. However after decades of promises, and hundreds of patients, it eventually became clear that the treatments resulted in none of the positive effects that Voronoff lauded. In fact, quite a few patients had major complications, infections, suffered shock, etc.
In addition, testosterone was finally isolated as the hormone secreted by the testes, and therefore the target chemical of the transplantation surgeries (ie, to get it to produce more) had been found. But when testosterone was injected into animals, while Voronoff thought they would become strong and virile, that just didn’t happen, and it also did not slow aging or prolong life. A particularly loud skeptic, British surgeon Dr. Kenneth Walker, termed Voronoff’s treatment as “no better than the methods of witches and magicians.”
This was devastating to Voronoff’s reputation and career. His clinic languished and disappeared, as did all respect for his methods. He died in relative obscurity, although recently the negative perception of his work has relaxed somewhat. But there is a rather disturbing hypothesis out there that posits that the AIDS virus entered the human population through Voronoff’s transplantation work.
Decades later, a David Hamilton published a book “The Monkey Gland Affair” which in essence debunked the transplantations by explaining that tissue from another species would be rejected, not absorbed, and would at best result in scar tissue. Any (rare) slight improvements seen in transplant recipients were likely placebo effect.
Sources and more info:
Sharon Romm. 1983. Rejuvenation Revisited. Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. doi 10.1007/BF01570668
1923 Time Article on Voronoff
Hat tip to Phil Urbanski.