Issue 29 Sloth Spring 2008

Vasectomania, and Other Cures for Sloth

Christopher Turner

In 1904, the Heidelberg chemist Wilhelm Weichardt made a sensational announcement. He promised a utopia in which men would never grow weary, but would be transformed into industrious and tireless machines. Weichardt thought that fatigue was caused by the accumulation of toxins in the blood, and he harvested a concentrated version of this poison from rats that he drove to death by strenuous exercise. As the toxins built up, he observed, the rats descended into a kind of "narcosis" or "stupor," before slowing to a "complete standstill." In his laboratory, Weichardt worked on an antibody. He called the resulting miracle drug—his vaccine against fatigue—antikenotoxin.

In The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (1990), Anson Rabinbach explains how, after 1870, the religious discourse against acedia or sloth was taken up and replaced by the burgeoning scientific study of fatigue. Fatigue, Rabinbach argues, was considered both a physical and moral disorder: it "replaced the traditional emphasis on idleness as the paramount cause of resistance to work. Its ubiquity was evidence of the body’s stubborn subversion of modernity." In the eighteenth century, idleness had been presented by artists such as Hogarth as the antithesis of industry; in the nineteenth century, fatigue was considered a similar failure—it represented the refusal of the body and mind to keep up with the demands of modern labor. Maurice Keim, one of the first of these nineteenth-century theorists, wrote that "we flee [fatigue] by instinct, it is responsible for our sloth and makes us desire inaction."

In the decade following its invention, antikenotoxin vapors were pumped into Berlin’s classrooms in the optimistic hope that science could save schoolchildren from infection by the dangerous seeds of sloth. The experiment was thought to have incredible beneficial effects. Students who had been secretly exposed to the gas for five hours were given a series of mathematical tests that they apparently performed with "considerable improvement"; their speed of calculation increased by fifty percent, and their answers showed improved accuracy. Pupils who were usually sleepy and bored by the time of their afternoon lessons were now uncharacteristically sprightly.

In 1914, on the eve of World War I, it was hoped that Weichardt’s vaccine would provide the Austro-Hungarian army with a military advantage. But a battery of independent scientific tests conducted on soldiers showed that those who were injected with antikenotoxin performed no better than those who received a jab of placebo. In fact, other "nerve whips," as they were called, such as caffeine or cocaine, proved much more effective. However, even these stimulants served only to mask rather than cure the symptoms of fatigue.

The war was fought on other technological fronts, but after the ceasefire the quest for a more useable fatigue vaccine persisted in the dismantled and humbled Austro-Hungarian empire. Blood was still thought to be the key to curing fatigue and expanding the horizons of human usefulness, but the emphasis was now on the hormones that flooded it rather than the toxins that polluted it. It was Charles-édouard Brown-Séquard, a professor of experimental medicine at the Collège de France and the grandfather of modern endocrinology, who brought the importance of these chemical cues in the blood stream to scientific attention. In 1889, aged seventy-two, he injected himself with the juice of pulped guinea pig and dog testicles, a hormonal fluid that he believed rejuvenated him. Though the concentrations of testosterone would have been too low to have any biological effect, Brown-Séquard claimed that he felt awash with new energy, that his brain functioned more quickly, that his endurance was enhanced, and his sexual potency revived. In a book he wrote about the experiment—Elixir of Life—he said he felt thirty years younger. He could work into the night, walk up the stairs without holding on to the banisters, and, he noted, his bowel movements improved.

News of his "elixir" was widely publicized and mocked by scientists at the time, who saw in Brown-Séquard a modern Ponce de León (the Spanish conquistador famous for his foolish quest for the Fountain of Youth), but three decades later there was a full-blown glandular craze. In June 1922, a journalist for the New York Times wrote: "In the last two years the reading public has become pretty well accustomed to the almost continuous hysterical manifestations of concern for its glandular welfare. A war-ridden world has given way to a gland-ridden world. Nearly every newspaper and magazine that one picks up contains some reference—jocular or serious­—to monkey glands and goat glands and the beneficent possibilities in human gland nurture and repair."

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The physiologist Serge Voronoff, a Russian working in Paris, was one of the most infamous of the gland doctors. He thought that the lazy, mentally disabled, run-down, and aged could be revitalized by testicular transplants. Many wealthy men underwent the costly surgery; Voronoff transplanted the testes of executed criminals into millionaires. Legal contracts were drawn up with prospective donors, but apparently willing individuals were in such short supply that what one scientist called a "despicable trade in organs" began to develop. According to one newspaper, men were even being mugged for their testicles, "knocked unconscious and then robbed of the long-sought-for organs."

Voronoff solved this crisis by slicing and grafting the testicles of monkeys onto those of the men who sought his treatment. In his book, Rejuvenation by Grafting (1925), Voronoff promised the patients who acquired his monkey glands that they’d be able to work longer, and that they would be blessed with improved memories, eyesight, and sex drives. He set up a special breeding center on the Italian Riviera for chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans that was run by a former circus-animal keeper.

What he promised was spurious—according to the surgeon and historian, David Hamilton, grafts from other animals would be instantly rejected by the patient, though the resulting scarring might imply they had been absorbed. But the idea that one might be made younger by apes, a kind of evolutionary trick, "seeped into the popular mind like water into sand," according to a 1923 article in the New York Times Magazine, "for the mind of man has thirsted for this secret for untold centuries." Voronoff became very rich as the hopeful queued up to make their Faustian pact with him. He set up home on the entire first floor of one of Paris’s most expensive and fashionable hotels, where he was surrounded by an entourage of chauffeurs, valets, personal secretaries, and chefs, as well as two mistresses.

If the body was a machine, its energy quickly sapped by the demands of modernity, it was thought that you could revive it by replacing or augmenting its exhausted batteries, in this case the testes, through grafts or hormonal injections. As Dr. Clayton E. Wheeler, who gave 12,000 goat gland injections to California patients between the ages of fifty-two and seventy-six in the 1920s (claiming in the process to have revived "the living dead"), told an audience in New York, "the human body is just like a storage battery of a motor car or radio … whose potency ebbs with use and needs to be reinvigorated at certain intervals to restore its customary vitality."

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In Vienna, Eugen Steinach also performed transplant operations. Steinach, director of the Biological Institute in Vienna, was a research scientist who was nominated for the Nobel Prize six times in the 1920s and 1930s and performed sex change operations on rats and guinea pigs, triggering the development of the opposite sex by implanting ovaries or testes in his neutered rodents. The Austrian satirist Karl Kraus joked that with these skills, Steinach might be able to turn suffragettes into maternal women and journalists into real men. Steinach thought that he could treat homosexuality in men by transplanting a testicle of a supposedly "normal" man to remasculinize the recipient. Though sex reformers appreciated his attempt to establish that there was an innate biological basis for homosexuality, the results of his operations, according to one doctor who wrote his obituary, were to be taken cum grano salis.

Steinach thought that the vasectomy—or the "Steinach operation" as it was then commonly known—presented an ingenious solution to the shortage of testicles for grafts. Rather than resorting to simian transplants or animal injections, the patient’s own glands would be stimulated or "re-energized" into more youthful activity. Having tested the procedure in rats, Steinach believed that the severance and ligature of the spermatic duct would cause the sperm-producing tissue to back up and atrophy, making more room for the interstitial or Leydig cells that are also produced in the testicles, which would then flood the bloodstream with hormones and new energy.

The first Steinach operation was performed in 1918 by Steinach’s colleague Robert Lichtenstern on Anton W., a forty-three-year-old coachman who suffered from chronic fatigue: "The patient presented the appearance of an exhausted and prematurely old man," Steinach reported in his book Rejuvenation Through Experimental Regeneration of the Aging Interstitial Gland (1920), which contained photographs of apparent metamorphosis.

"His weight was 108 pounds, his musculature was weak, and there was very little cushion of fat," wrote Steinach in his report. "The skin was dull and conspicuously dry, the hair grey and had fallen out on top, scanty beard, lank hair growth on the trunk and extremities." A year and a half after the operation, the coachman had put on thirty-five pounds. "The ex-patient now drags loads of up to 220 pounds with ease. His muscles have developed extraordinarily. The hair on his head is thicker and his beard more strongly developed. The head and face hair grow so quickly he has to have it cut and shaved twice as often as previously. … The skin appears soft, with fine down, pliable and moist. … This man with his smooth, unwrinkled face, his smart and upright bearing, gives the impression of a man at the height of his vitality."

In case this transformation was attributed to suggestion, the operation was performed on Anton W. without his knowledge of its consequences and hoped-for effects. Nevertheless, other explanations are possible: the man’s progress might be ascribed to the near-famine and influenza epidemic that ravaged Vienna in the winter of 1918, but had eased up a year later.

In April 1923, the New York Times reported an "exodus to Vienna" of doctors who hoped to learn the secret of the Steinach operation. "The glamour of acquirement [of these surgical skills] at a great distance," the Times observed, added to the "generous fee" doctors were able to charge back home. In the Roaring Twenties, thousands of Steinach operations were performed in the US and around the world, from Chile to India, and hundreds of books—most directed at lay readers—celebrated their supposed successes in optimistic patient histories and testimonials.

Fifty-six-year-old controller before (A) and after (B) the Steinach operation. From How to Restore Youth and Live Longer, by Serge Voronoff (1928).

Steinach, who had acquired worldwide fame as a result (his name was even used as a verb, to be "Steinached"), made a full-length film of his procedure, which appeared in two versions: one for scientists shown before a medical audience in New York, and the other a popular treatment that never got a theatrical release in the States. According to the New York Times, Viennese "crowds were clamoring to get into the movie houses where the film was being shown, and … they stood around disconsolately when they were unable to gain admission." The film showed aged rats, barely able to stand. After their vasectomies they appeared rejuvenated (or "reactivated," as Steinach preferred to call it) and playful. They were finally shown surrounded by new offspring (the vasectomy was only done on one side), their potency fully restored. Men were shown before, during, and after their operations, similarly transformed.

There were occasional setbacks to this propaganda campaign. Alfred Wilson, a rich septuagenarian who underwent the procedure (for which he paid the then-enormous sum of 700 pounds), died of a heart attack the morning he was to give a talk at London’s Albert Hall on "How I was Made Younger by the Method of Professor Steinach." His friends said his death was due to the excitement and over-exertion in which he had indulged on his return from Vienna. According to the Australian sex reformer Norman Haire, who performed Steinach operations in England, "[Wilson] had been warned not to be too prodigal of his new-found strength, but forgot that he was in his seventies and tried to live like a young man in his twenties. The result, of course, was disaster."

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Though he made it famous, the vasectomy was not invented by Steinach; it originated in the 1890s as a non-traumatic version of castration, which was then employed to treat enlarged prostates (one castrated patient had murdered his surgeon for having emasculated him, setting off the search for an alternative surgery). The first vasectomy done for non-medical reasons was performed by Harry Sharp in 1899 on a nineteen-year-old boy at a reformatory school in Indiana who indulged in excessive masturbation, long thought by religious zealots to be a by-product of the sin of sloth—after his operation, according to Sharp, the boy "became more of a sunny disposition, brighter of intellect and ceased to masturbate."

By 1907, when Sharp helped push through the first Eugenic Act in his home state, he had operated on 176 other masturbating minors. He reported that the patients all "improved mentally and physically, in that they increase in flesh, feel that they are stronger, sleep better, their memory improves, the will becomes stronger, and their school progress advances. … The man’s mind and nervous system­—especially the centers of self-restraint—are strengthened by re-absorption of sperm." By 1937, thirty-two states were performing eugenic sterilizations on criminals, the unfit, and the insane.

Steinach, however, was advocating the use of these eugenic techniques on the very people who were supposed to be improving the racial makeup of the species. Because the operation was not done bilaterally, technically the aging men who underwent it would still be able to reproduce. Harry Benjamin, the German-born sexologist who performed hundreds of Steinach procedures in the United States (thirteen percent of them on other physicians), claimed that the operation would "increase the productive yield of great men: scientists, inventors, artists ... ." He meant this both sexually and creatively.

Sigmund Freud and W. B. Yeats were among the celebrity patients who were Steinached, an operation no more serious, according to another respected Viennese doctor who went under the knife, than having your hair cut. Freud had the operation in 1923, aged sixty-seven, in the hope that it would prevent the recurrence of the cancer of the jaw from which he suffered. He told Harry Benjamin this when the two men met in Vienna, and that he hoped it might improve his "sexuality, his general condition and his capacity for work." In 1934, when Yeats was sixty-nine, he went to see Norman Haire in Harley Street for the snip. Not long afterwards, Haire invited a woman half Yeats’s age to dinner, so that Yeats could test out his newly regained sexual potency. It was apparently a success. Yeats spoke so often of the "second puberty" that he enjoyed, and the creative outpouring it engendered, that the Dublin press nicknamed him the "gland old man." "It revived my creative power," Yeats boasted, "it revived also sexual desire; and that in all likelihood will last me until I die."

The American novelist Gertrude Atherton, the prolific author most famous for her bestselling 1923 novel Black Oxen, based on her own experience of the female equivalent of vasectomy (low-dose X-rays to the ovaries), suggested in 1924 that Germany, whose best young men had been lost in the war, make itself predominant again "by having her supermen subjected to the Steinach treatment and rejuvenated." Vasectomies were encouraged for the respected as well as the unfit because it might extend the breeding age of Germany’s esteemed but otherwise impotent old men. It is estimated that a million vasectomies were performed in the Third Reich for eugenic purposes.

In 1944, Steinach, who was half-Jewish, died at the age of eighty-three in exile in Zurich. According to Benjamin, he died "a lonely, uprooted, and somewhat embittered man." The Steinach procedure, as its inventor imagined it, was killed off in 1935 when scientists managed to isolate testosterone, and the Steinach operation was relegated to the realm of quack therapies. The biological ideas that underlay it have since been discredited (a vasectomy wouldn’t stimulate the overproduction of Leydig cells, as Steinach supposed); in contrast, injections of synthetic testosterone offered a foolproof method of increasing hormone.

The Steinach procedure’s reported successes were thereafter attributed to the placebo effect. "Unfortunately, those wishing for renewed youth suffer inordinately with the will to believe," warned Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association at the height of the glandular craze. In January 1936, the Los Angeles Times, whose proprietor once underwent injections from "Goat Gland Brinkley," the most famous of the glandular quacks in the US, reported that "the sensational miracles promised by yarns in the Sunday supplements failed to materialize." Scientists had been unable to counter the immutable second law of thermodynamics to create a perpetual human machine. "After all," the paper concluded, "people who live fast should expect to die young."

A rebellious monkey refuses to give up his glands. Drawing by Aldo Molinari.

Christopher Turner is an editor of Cabinet. His book, Adventures in the Orgasmatron: How the Sexual Revolution Came To America, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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