NL 2016/01

The Birth of Hormone Research: sterilisation was believed bring about eternal youth

Eugen Steinach followed many correct paths and one wrong one

Eugen Steinach (1861-1944), a native of Hohenems, Vorarlberg, was well-known not only in medical circles, as he also had a significant presence in the world’s great literary salons. His research on hormonal glands was a source of basic knowledge essential for development of the contraceptive pill. Steinach wrote more than 60 scientific books and articles and was nominated for the Nobel Prize no less than eleven times between 1921 and 1938.

However, he was also widely known for his “view … that human youth, aging and death are nothing more than physiological processes in the same way as growth in general. … Steinach claimed that if he were able to restore the activity of the puberty gland, all manifest signs of aging would have to disappear.” To prove this, he experimented with something he termed reactivation methods, which were intended to stimulate the body’s production of the male hormone testosterone and reverse the effects of aging. After initial attempts with transplantations of testes, he decided on severing the sperm ducts; this ‘Steinach operation’ was in fact a vasectomy, which is used to sterilise men. A contributor to a contemporary medical journal wrote that “Recently, newspapers published reports from the quiet laboratory of a famed doctor, and as a result the entire civilized world took note with expectation. This news involved nothing less than the claim that the professor of Biology at the University of Vienna, Eugen Steinach, was able to restore long-gone youth to the elderly by means of a safe operation. It is not surprising that such news resulted in profound excitement, as a reliable technique for rejuvenating the aging body represents one of the ardent dreams and greatest desires of humanity.”

Steinach’s prominent fans included the Irish winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature William Butler Yeats, who praised the operation’s effects effusively: “It revived my creative power. It revived also sexual desire; and that in all likelihood will last me until I die.” Both Albert Lorenz, a well-known orthopaedic surgeon and the father of behavioural researcher Konrad Lorenz, and the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud underwent this procedure, Freud for therapeutic reasons: he wanted to slow the progress of his cancer.

Steinach was not the first person to promise rejuvenation. In a variety of countries, other strategies to produce the same results had been hotly discussed in scientific circles since the late 19th century, regularly making newspaper headlines. In the 1920s, a regular Steinach hype developed: the composer Willy Kaufmann wrote the foxtrot “Steinach-Rummel”, which the magazine “Simplicissimus” referred to in 23 different articles. The writer Arthur Schnitzler was interested in Steinach’s research, and Karl Kraus mentioned the doctor several times in his magazine, “Die Fackel”. In Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, a woman friend of Franz Biberkopf comments on the appearance of her former lover Reinhold: “I can tell you, Franz, you bash your forehead, what the heck’s he done with ’imself, has he had an hormone transplant overnight?” Steinach’s experiments were even the subject of films: in 1922, UFA made a big-budget educational movie aimed at medical professionals. A popular version was made the next year, over Steinach’s objections, in which the material was rearranged for a general public, and it premiered at the UFA-Filmpalast in Berlin.


Rejuvenation attempts with terrible consequences

The belief, abandoned long ago, according to which sterilisation could stop the aging process, wasn’t held by men only. “The Steinach operation is not as easy to perform on women as is the case with the male sex, and for this reason, he preferred not employing surgery with them, instead reviving the puberty gland in the ovaries by means of x-rays. In most cases, he successfully increased the general level of energy in the women so treated, giving them a rejuvenated appearance.” One of Steinach’s prominent patients was the US writer Gertrude Atherton, who described her experiences with rejuvenation therapy in the book “Black Oxen” (1923), which became a best seller. Atherton was treated at the age of 66, after which she claimed to feel 30 years younger.

In contrast to sterilisation, this involved castration as a result of damage caused by the x-rays: organs’ normal functions were disrupted rather than suspended. The gradual onset of the terrible effects of female castration was described by Emile Zola in his 1899 book “Fruitfulness”:

“The doctor smiled calmly, shrugged his shoulders ... assured her that the women who had been operated on were rejuvenated nine and ten times, looking young until the age of fifty and, on the contrary, proved to be even more passionate, which should even be considered one of the operation’s disadvantages.

“And news of his successes spread all across the city, this wonderful mastery was celebrated, which he had acquired by practicing on thousands of poor women at his clinic – a mastery that made of him an idol showered with gold, the sovereign castrator of all mad millionairesses.

“She removed her gloves and took off her hat and veil. He saw her as she had appeared at their occasional encounters, but was then gripped by veritable horror after taking a closer look and noticing the terrible devastation she had fallen victim to. He recalled seeing her a few years ago, her appearance at the age of thirty-five, the bold beauty of her face, her tall, commanding form, her flaming hair, the provocative bosom and shoulders, her smooth white skin. What horrible poisonous breath had befallen her to make her age so suddenly, resembling a ghost, as if death already had her in its grip, and he saw the fleshless skeleton of a woman he had once known with a sense of triumph? She was a hundred years old.”

The supposed rejuvenation of middle-aged to elderly men by means of testes transplants or sterilisation soon proved to be ineffective. Observations made over an extended period of time, more precise statistical analyses and the increase in knowledge about hormones, the effect of sex hormones in particular, brought an end to such experiments. Unadulterated fantasy had produced euphoria, or had had a placebo effect.

The effect on women was much more tragic: destruction of the ovaries by means of x-rays and/or the removal of the uterus led to a sudden drop in the production of hormones, which is now brought under control by hormone replacement therapy. Otherwise, an abrupt and violent onset of menopause results. For example, the hormone oestrogen affects both sexual functions and the bones; a reduction in the blood oestrogen level can result in osteoporosis, or atrophy of the bones. Furthermore, oestrogens stimulate the immune system and increase the brain’s sensitivity to sound; a reduced oestrogen level leads to hearing problems. This hormone is also essential for the storage of memories of sounds and language, and the existence of such connections were not known until after years of hormone research.


S. Walch: Triebe, Reize und Signale - Eugens Steinachs Physiologie der Sexualhormone, Böhlau, 2016, ISBN 978-3-205-20200-4 (in German)


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