Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

[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.)]

i-934c29a5b1a74e5cecd5c755d513d86a-voronoff 1.jpg 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.

(Continued below the fold….)

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.

i-14d2418cc75f3d680cc24012df157f6c-voronoff 2.jpg 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

http://www.gvsu.edu/english/cummings/issue9/Gillybo9.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serge_Voronoff

1923 Time Article on Voronoff

Hat tip to Phil Urbanski.

Comments

  1. #1 MartinC
    June 5, 2007

    What a load of bollocks.

    Nice article, though.

  2. #2 Russ
    June 5, 2007

    This work apparently served as the basis for Arthur C. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story titled “The adventure of the creeping man.” In the BBC rendition starring Jeremy Brett, I seem to recall the professor receiving glandular treatments from monkeys of some sort. According to Wikipedia, however, the treatment in the original work was a “drug” derived from langurs (Old World monkeys). In any case, the story was first released in 1923, so it is likely (as I now see mentioned in the “Serge Voronoff” entry of Wikipedia) Doyle took his inspiration from Voronoff.

  3. #3 T. Bruce McNeely
    June 5, 2007

    Don’t forget the USA’s own Dr. John Brinkley, who transplanted goat testicles after being impressed with the mating habits of Billy goats he had observed:

    http://www.quackwatch.org/11Ind/brinkley.html

  4. #4 Andre
    June 6, 2007

    This is what happens when quacks/’magicians’ are given the tools of science…

    The ‘monkey gland’ reference reminds me of a South African dish called Monkey Gland Steak. No; it is not what you think :) http://www.southafrican.za.net/monkey-gland-steak.html

    I don’t know how you manage to dig up these gems… keep ‘em coming! :D

  5. #5 Edward Haslam
    June 7, 2007

    Transplants are cetainly capable of bringing viruses from animal to man, an event known to sceince as “zoonoses,” but such transfer does not explain the genetic changes which converted SIV (the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus) into HIV-1 (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). SIV does appear in the human blood supply and has been labeled as HIV-2, which is an unfortunate and confusing name. SIV has been found in human blood from Africa since the 1930s and was transfered to Europeans via prostitutes there. SIV was also one of dozens on monkey viruses that contaminated the polio vaccines of the 1950s in small quantities, though the carcinogenic SV-40 is of greater concern. More information on these subjects can be found in my book DR. MARY’S MONKEY. More information at: http://www.TheMonkeyVirus.com.

    Shelly: Your article is great original medical journalism which reminds the public (and the medical community) that some doctors do reach outside the boundaries in their work. My book explores a group that used radiation to mutate monkey viruses around 1960.

  6. #6 Harry Chong
    June 30, 2007

    Voronoff’s ambition was far off, but speaks volumes of what man is trying to achieve today.

  7. #7 Devon
    July 4, 2007

    Hi!
    If you have not read Richard Zack’s “An Underground Education”, you should. It covers a lot of ground as far as what scientists could do when there were no IRB’s. I think you would like it.
    Take care,
    D

  8. #8 Aaron Voronoff
    September 16, 2007

    Well, Shelley, wow.

    You’ve really done your research,
    I’m impressed.
    I have been catching up on the world’s
    laughter over my great-grand-uncle’s research,
    and tho many laughed the poor genius into the grave,
    I believe that his ideas and ambition have
    resurrected themselves in this age for a reason.
    Thank you for sharing the info you’ve gathered.
    I honestly hope that voronoff’s work
    can be extended, that his vision
    can be fully realized.
    Perhaps the secret to longer life was not in
    the monkey gland but a fish or frog gland…???
    I’m just a humble artist-pilgrim but
    I have ideas and voronoff genes.
    Peace.
    Aaro
    Voro
    the
    Voyager

  9. #9 Michael R.
    November 30, 2007

    I have a son,10yrs old, who’s testicules vanished for whatever the reason (his doc believed he had both at birth one larger or smaller than the other,he found the larger of the two and was somewhat sure he felt the other also, 7yrs later gone).My ? is if he has all the right tubes, veins,… all at a deadend but there to attach a ateste to,myself or maybe a brother donate one. The reason I bring this up is that I heard a “story” where twin boys were born some time ago where one had both the other had none ,you know where I’m headed. I would appreicate any knowledge someone else might know of this case or any like it. THANX M.R.

  10. #10 Voronoff the Voyager
    December 10, 2007

    shelly,
    I have discovered some interesting facts about my great uncle serge. apparently he was a member of the order of the golden dawn, a turn of the century esoteric group involving aleister crowley and some famous writers such as ts eliot and wb yeats…..i guess the man was a mystic as well as a freaky experimentor….also my dad has discovered old pics of uncle serge at chateau grimmaldi (the castle in da vinci code) where he lived and conducted his island of dr moreau style experiments within his little monkey zoo.

  11. #11 parke
    September 10, 2008

    I have ideas and voronoff genes too

  12. #12 film izle
    September 25, 2008

    Nice article, though.

  13. #13 Aaro
    October 28, 2008

    dear shelley,

    i’ve created a new archive of voronoff facts and strange tidbits and hope to include your article soon. i found an old oil painting of the doctor and you can view it at
    http://www.voronoff.wordpress.com
    the site is still a work in progress but coming along.
    thanks!
    aaron

  14. #14 Voronoff the Voyager
    November 5, 2008

    Dear Shelly,

    Please visit

    http://www.voronoff.wordpress.com
    an archive of related media articles
    blogs, photographs, and images from the
    family collection. A link to this article
    may be found in press coverage,
    good luck with your studies!

  15. #15 filim
    November 17, 2008

    THANKS VERY GOOD ONE ARTICLE

  16. #16 müzik dinle
    November 17, 2008

    THANKS VERY GOOD ONE ARTICLE

  17. #17 film izle
    November 23, 2008

    Well, Shelley, wow.

    You’ve really done your research,
    I’m impressed.
    I have been catching up on the world’s
    laughter over my great-grand-uncle’s research,
    and tho many laughed the poor genius into the grave,
    I believe that his ideas and ambition have
    resurrected themselves in this age for a reason.

  18. #18 Aaron Voronoff
    December 6, 2008

    HI Shelley,

    for some reason your blog keeps coming up in my daily voronoff internet researches. I have created an archive to collect and gather all the very strange and interesting tidbits regarding Dr. Voronoff. I have also found numerous family pictures and original paintings from France that you may find of interest. Apparently his ‘monkey farm’ in southern france (menton) was one of the world’s first primate research centers. Hmmm. Please visit http://www.voronoff.wordpress.com to get a headful….
    cheers!

  19. #19 pier
    April 30, 2009

    thank you

  20. #20 S Call
    December 26, 2009

    I know this is an old post. However, I couldn’t help but add the following.

    Apparently, Dr. Vornoff’s notoriety inspired more than aspirations for greater virility but also some fun (and toasts) at his expense: the Monkey Gland cocktail is a drink invented in honor of Dr. Vornoff’s works.

    I found a reference (and recipe) to it here: http://personals.nwsource.com/blog/juanmfangio/2/index.html?dcb=personals.nwsource.com

    The recipe and brief write up:

    The cocktail is listed in The Savoy Cocktail Book, but Harry MacElhone, owner of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, is credited with mixing the first Monkey Gland in the 1920s. The catchy name was inspired by the work of Serge Voronoff, a Russian surgeon who transplanted ape testicles into elderly men to renew their sex drive. Allegedly he performed more than 1,000 such procedures at $5,000 each.

    Needless to say the procedure was bad for the patient, even worse for the monkey.

    It’s a damn tasty drink, though.

    2 oz gin
    1 oz orange juice
    1/4 oz Grenadine (homemade, of course)
    dash Absinthe

    Shake, strain, cross your legs and sip.

    Drink to your health and the virility of all primates!

    By the way – note to Voronoff the Voyager who posted above – can you contact me (severncall@hotmail.com) if by any chance whatsoever you get this message? If your story is true – “Great Uncle Serge” – I would really, really love to correspond with you to hear more. Drinks (Monkey Gland cocktail, of course) are on me.

  21. #21 Nick
    June 17, 2010

    I know, I’ll improve my eyesight by injecting my forehead with ground up hawk eyes. How could it fail? Actually, I think this guy had some good ideas, he just went about it all wrong. Maybe if he were born closer to this time and had taken time to research other surgeons and scientists’ work and let the idea evolve more he could have invented a useful medical procedure.

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