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Hormonal History

While serving as physician to the king of Egypt, Dr. Serge Voronoff had noted that the court eunuchs were often sickly and seemed to age very quickly. The testes, he concluded, played an important role in maintaining vigour, and that “possession of active genital glands was the best possible assurance for a long life.” In 1918 he believed he made his point when he restored an aging ram’s youthful vitality by transplanting the testes of a young lamb. Voronoff upped the ante by transplanting the testes of executed criminals into aging men rich enough to pay for the procedure. But demand soon outstripped supply, and since few young men were willing to part with their precious parts even for rich compensation, Voronoff came up with an alternate scheme. He would transplant bits of chimpanzee and monkey testes onto the genitals of elderly men. Eventually more than a thousand men underwent the monkey gland treatment at the hands of doctors around the world, with the requisite material often being supplied by a monkey farm Voronoff set up on the Italian Riviera.

Dr. Eugen Steinach bought into Voronoff’s idea, but thought that the benefits ascribed to transplants could be achieved by an alternate procedure. Damming the seminal canal would stimulate the testes to produce more male hormones! At the time, researchers had determined that that there were two types of tissues in testicles. Seminal tubules produced spermatozoa, but there were are also “Leydig” cells between the tubules, that released sex hormones. Steinach’s idea was that the two types of tissues compete for nourishment, and that stifling the sperm producing tissues would boost the production of the sex hormones.

In his book, Sex and Life, Steinach described how his patients “changed from feeble, parched, dribbling drones, to men of vigorous bloom who threw away their glasses, shaved twice a day, dragged loads up to 220 pounds, and even indulged in such youthful follies as buying land in Florida.” He believed in his procedure so strongly that he “thrice reactivated himself.” It isn’t clear what he meant by “thrice” because once the duct is tied off, it’s tied off. Whatever improvement Steinach and his patients felt was likely due to wishful thinking, because as we now know, vasectomies do not boost hormonal output by the testes.

Steinach had testimonials galore, including from some very famous people such as. Sigmund Freud who underwent the procedure when he was 67 years old, hoping to improve his “sexuality, his general condition and his capacity for work.” William Butler Yeats, the famed writer, was Steinached when he was 69. “It revived my creative power,” wrote Yeats in 1937. Apparently in more than one way. The doctor who performed the snip invited a woman half Yeats’s age to dinner with the aim of allowing the writer to make a connection and test out his newly embellished virility. It seems the outcome was successful with Yeats publicly reporting on his “second puberty,” leading to the Dublin press nicknaming him the “gland old man.”

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