The 1920s saw a trend for animal gland grafts to improve sex drive and ward off aging.
An early patient, before and after an ape thyroid transplant. Image: Voronoff/Wikimedia
Let me take you by the hand
Over to the jungle band
If you're too old for dancing
Get yourself a monkey gland
Taken from a musical number in the Marx Brother's film The Cocoanuts (1929), Irving Berlin's lyrics sound flippant but describe a very real medical trend in 1920s America. Around this time, a fashion for "rejuvenative" xenotransplantation, the transplantation of monkey (and goat) testicles into men, proved a popular "cure" for erectile dysfunction and ageing. It was an early form of body-hacking.
The quest for everlasting virility had already fueled early medical experimentation: In his book A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis, author David Friedman details the first documented testicle transplant in 1911, where doctors grafted a testicle taken from a man who had recently bled to death onto a 19-year-old who had been kicked in the scrotum and suffered damage (his body later swelled up and rejected the atrophied organ).
But the monkey and goat gland craze hinged on vanity rather than necessity, promising sexual potency to ageing men. In this sense it was an early "cosmetic" surgery: the operation carried cachet and a certain status, available only to those wealthy and well-connected enough to travel to Paris and meet with Serge Voronoff, the Russian-born doctor who originated the monkey testicle grafting process.
Voronoff reportedly arrived at his technique after gruesome self-experimentation and the observation of eunuchs during his time as a doctor in Cairo, whereupon he concluded that youthfulness depended largely upon the secretion of sex hormones. In 1889, the doctor injected himself with a mixture of dog and guinea pig testicles in a bid for interspecies "rejuvenation" as endorsed by the French physiologist Adolphe Brown-Séquard, but this failed to produce results.
He came to see full glandular implants as the answer, beginning by transplanting the thyroid glands of chimpanzees into humans with thyroid deficiencies, then later the testicles of executed criminals into living millionaires. When demand outstripped the number of available male corpses, Voronoff turned his attentions back to animal-sourced transplants.
Voronoff claimed later to have conducted his first monkey testicle implant in 1913: historical sources dispute the date but widely concede that he was the first to conduct xenotransplanation using primate organs. Voronoff segmented glands taken from baboon into slithers of 2 cm by 0.5 cm and inserted them into the scrotum of a 74-year-old man showing signs of senility, judging the "rejuvenating" effect of the operation a success.
Animal gland transplants paved a way for innovation in advertising, prefiguring Viagra email spam by the better part of a century.
Word spread of Voronoff's xenotransplantations, which promised to improve sex drive, memory function and energy, and even reduce the need to wear glasses. Frank Klaus, a well-know middleweight boxer, publicly underwent the operation in the run-up to a career comeback, and Voronoff became famous, parodied as a character in Mikhail Bulgakov's 1925 satirical novel Heart of a Dog, which features a doctor named Preobrazhensky who implants human testicles into a stray dog. He is also remembered in a cocktail created in 1920s Paris and still made to this day, called, inevitably, "The Monkey Gland."
Today Voronoff's practise seems a hair's breadth from the plot of HG Wells's sci-fi novel The Island of Dr Moreau, a surreal early attempt at biohacking and endocrinological enhancement. But the xenotransplants became such a craze that they earned the world's first "celebrity surgeon" $5,000 per surgery. Voronoff used before-and-after images to promote himself, published in a book in 1925 entitled Rejuvenation by Grafting, and claimed to have conducted over 1,000 xenotransplants.
Alongside its role in the development of latter-day grafting practises, animal gland transplants paved a way for innovation in advertising, prefiguring Viagra email spam by the better part of a century. Just as Voronoff used publishing to promote himself, across the waters in America another pioneer of interspecies grafting was experimenting in early radio advertising. Dr John Brinkley, the North Carolina doctor known to history as "the goat gland quack," developed his practise of testicle implantation alongside a unique talent for self-promotion.
In her book Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll: The Science of Hedonism and the Hedonism of Science, author Zoe Cormier describes how Brinkley sold his surgeries to clients, using the tagline "A man is as old as his glands." "He earned an estimated $12 million by grafting goat testicles into gullible but desperate young American men who fell for Brinkley's claim that his treatments were best suited to intelligent men, but least suited for the dim-witted," she writes.
Brinkley drew on the legacy of the travelling medicine show, conjuring the story of an infertile Kansas goat farmer who commented to Brinkley, "Too bad I don't have billygoat nuts," and begged for a transplant. Brinkley set up a practise in Kansas, charging $750 to ageing farmers for implanted slivers of goat testicles, which he claimed could cure every ailment from flatulence to emphysema.
A persuasive public speaker, Brinkley set up a radio station KFKB ("Kansas First, Kansas Best") in 1923, supplementing his sales pitches with local musicians and crop reports. He was among the first broadcasters to charge for ad placements, and introduced a popular segment titled "Medical Question Box" where he fielded listeners' complains and suggested proprietary cures sold in Brinkley-affiliated pharmacies.
As Brinkley's fame grew he began to attract wealth, celebrity clients and, increasingly, the attentions of a suspicious American Medical Association. One biography describes him owning three yachts and a mansion with his name spelled out in neon lights, as well as an in-house two-storey pipe organ.
Monkey glands surfaced again as an early form of athletic doping for footballers.
Such was Brinkley's success in Hollywood that his operations inspired the term "Goat Gland filmmaking," in which talkie sequences were "grafted" onto silent films in a cheap bid to boost their popularity. But "Dr" Brinkley had purchased his title with a certificate bought from the Kansas City Eclectic Medical University, a local diploma mill, in 1912, and would later be imprisoned in South Carolina for practising without a license as well as for writing bad checks.
The animal gland transplant has not aged well as a concept: Voronoff's experiments have been intermittently blamed for the transmission of HIV into humans, though that theory has not been proven. Brinkley, meanwhile, is remembered as a con artist, subject of a biography entitled Charlatan: The Fraudulent Life of John Brinkley. Both he and Voronoff died disgraced. Monkey glands surfaced again, unexpectedly, as an early form of athletic doping for footballers in Wolverhampton in the 1940s, but the treatment had by then become a curiosity.
Today, schoolchildren in Ireland hear of the long-discredited monkey gland treatment by studying the poet WB Yeats, who was rumoured to have undergone the operation, though it was later proven that he just had a vasectomy. Regardless, his poem "Sailing to Byzantium" contains lines which perhaps sum up the hope, fear, and desperation which would lead somebody to invest in monkey testicles: "Consume my heart away, sick with desire, and fastened to a dying animal..."
Today's testosterone injections, dubious "enhancement pills" and counterfeit Viagra pale in comparison with the lengths men went to a century earlier.
Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form. Follow along here.