What would you do for a chance at eternal life? For some people in the early 1920s, all it took was a slip of the knife…just as long as they didn’t mind getting a little up close and personal with their ape relatives.
During the early 1920s, Parisians were enthralled with the grandiose claims made by Dr. Serge Voronoff, a Russian doctor who convinced millions of laypeople—along with a significant chunk of the medical and scientific community at the time—that grafting small slices of “monkey glands” (mostly chimpanzee testicles, but later baboons) onto the gonads of older men would give them a shot at the fountain of youth.
“Life can be prolonged, sex intensified, and death delayed,” promised an ad for one of Voronoff’s books describing his research, The Conquest of Life 1. His treatment would “put pep in men…strengthen weakened stomachs, cure backache, chase pneumonia and cure colds.”2 Heck, it could “do everything from return youthful energy to curing senility and schizophrenia to radically prolonging life”—with the added bonus of boosting “sexual ability,” according to an Atlas Obscura article. And while the benefits for older men mgiht be obvious, women in menopause could benefit as well by having chimp ovaries grafted onto themselves. Extending human life and “usefulness,” however, was Voronoff’s ultimate goal. He promised his glandular treatments would “push a man’s age back twenty or thirty years” at the least,3 or extend it all the way to 140, so long as he had a steady supply of fresh ape glands on hand.4
As ridiculous as this seems, France’s medical establishment vouched for Voronoff’s work personally. While he’d been refused permission to speak to the French surgeon’s congress in 1922, just a year later not only did “two of the best known surgeons of Paris defended the scientific worth of…[his]…gland operations,” but Voronoff operated on two of his fellow surgeons and “arrangements were made to repeat the operation” on two more after that.5 Why did so many respected medical men jump on Voronoff’s bandwagon? Because they saw him as a more effective version of his predecessors, it seems.
Dr. Charles Edouard Brown-Sequard, a respected Parisian doctor who taught physiology at Harvard, shocked his fellow doctors at a medical conference in 1889 when “he frowned, as if weighing a decision…put his notes aside, looked at the audience, and [said]…he had a major discovery to announce.”6 It seems Dr. Sequard had “conquered Father Time” by injecting himself with ground up “testicular material, both animal and human,” restoring his youth and vigor to remarkable affect.7
“The effect of the announcement, coming as it did from such a reputable scientist, was electric,” wrote Tribune reporter Jon Franklin in a 1983 piece on early rejuvenation practices.8 Scientists came down on both sides. Some enthusiastically heralded Brown’s research: being old themselves (the average age of Sequard’s colleagues was 71), it was tempting to think that the affects of age could be reversed—and with the benefit of the placebo effect, many patients felt like the treatments worked.9 Once his claims hit the news, Brown-Sequard’s office was “besieged with pleas for the rejuvenation treatment” by untold scores of “old rich men” wanting to schedule an operation.10 Soon he started selling samples of his serum under the name Sequarine, which was touted as curing everything from diabetes, kidney disease, and influenza to “general weakness.” Though its effectiveness was mostly in the patient’s head—doctors have since proved that little testosterone actually stays in the testes once it’s been made and released into the bloodstream, making it useless to inject them into the bloodstream—it sold like hotcakes all the same.
Brown-Sequard’s success paved the way for others. Dr. Frank Lydston of Chicago joined the ranks of medical pioneers by being the first person to successfully “transplant a gland from one human being to another” in 1914—by implanting a dead man’s testicles underneath the skin of his abdomen.11 Just like Sequard, Lydston’s surgery supposedly gave him a new lease on life. Unlike his fellow gland enthusiasts, however, Lydston didn’t take his success to the public. Instead, he got mad about the “flies on the wheel” who profited from the serious scientific progress he’d made by appealing directly to “lay publicity,” instead of saving their results for hard science alone. After all, he’d been the “first to successfully transplant a testicle from one human being to another,” he pointed out in the pages of the Illinois Medical Journal. Why should these charlatans get all the credit?
Maybe because they’d taken things to a more sensational level. Lydston had been using dead human tissue, after all. Not very exciting. What if someone tried it with living tissue? And instead of sheep or goat testes like his earlier colleagues, why not use living tissue from man’s closest cousin, the chimpanzee? Early on he’d done well with old rams, restoring them to a “vigorous and lively” state using live goat testicles.12 Heck, he’d even increased their fleece production from “two or three inches to fifteen or sixteen inches in length” with his new grafts.13 Couldn’t he expect similar happy results with human subjects? And chimps would be perfect for transplanting. Weren’t their bodies “wonderfully like a human” with “identical organs” and “indistinguishable” blood?14
This was more or less Voronoff’s reasoning when he attempted his first ape-to-human testicular transplant on June 12th, 1920. Declaring it a success, he went on to perform over 2,000 operations on people all over the world, many of whom were rich old men who wanted their identities kept secret to stave off ridicule. One of these recipients was supposedly Chicago’s own Harold McCormick, who after divorcing his wife Edith for a young opera singer named Ganna Walska, went on to have a “secret gland operation at a Chicago hospital by Dr. Serge Voronoff,” supposedly in order to keep up with her in the bedroom.15
Others wanted everyone to know about their operation. Frank Klaus, the 1913 world middleweight champion, had a monkey gland inserted by a Philadelphia doctor via Voronoff’s method and declared afterward—while hospitalized from an infection caused by the operation itself, no less—that he was “in better physical health” after his transplant than he’d been his whole life.16 “My vitality is getting stronger every day,” he added, and reporters joked that it would doubtless make him a new man in the ring.17
Buoyed by these successes, Voronoff tried a different tack than his predecessors and took his findings straight to the public, altering his rhetoric to “suit what little science” they might possess.18 He wrote books and went on lecture tours, talking to sold-out crowds in Paris, New York, New York, Brazil, and Chicago.
The young women of Paris found Voronoff’s talks both thrilling and scandalous. A talk on October 7th, 1922, nearly caused a riot as young women “fought to enter the experimental laboratory of the College of France, where the Russian savant had waiting some rejuvinated men…rams…moving pictures, and a mass of fascinating detail” to present to the eager young ladies.19 The procedure itself was simple, Voronoff explained: “a local anesthetic is all that is necessary. It is merely a task of opening the skin, inserting new tissue, sewing up the slight wound, and then nature does the rest.”20 Then he let the girls shake the hands of some of his rejuvenated patients, pet some of the “simpering monkeys” he’d used in his treatments, and watch a film of one of his famous patients, 66-year-old Mr. Liardet, “boxing, climbing mountains, riding horseback, golfing, rowing, and finally jumping up steps four at a time, like a monkey” to show how rejuvenated he was.21 Crowds in Chicago on August 9th, 1920 were equally spellbound. Dr. Thorek, a friend of Dr. Lydston and fellow gland transplant enthusiast, noted that “every inch of the amphitheater in our hospital was crowded. Notables were scattered everywhere throughout the audience,” listening raptly to Voronoff as he was “assisted like a stage magician by his young and beautiful American wife” and “dazzled the hall with a lecture-demonstration using dogs.”22
The public was clearly eager for “more news about this wonderful and all-absorbing topic [of rejuvenation], with its mystery and sex appeal”—but they clearly had a very limited understanding of hormones like testosterone.23 Many laypeople saw hormones as something which rushed around one’s blood, serving “as a stimulant, whipping all the functions of the body into activity. Once it ceases, the body flags. The cells and tissues of the body begin the deterioration which finally ends in death.”24 Based on this understanding, transplanting glands made sense: put in a new gland, and you get new life. The fact that this rarely panned out for people didn’t seem to matter, however—a powerful new myth had taken hold of the public psyche. The combination of “science, fantasy, and speculation” that gland transplanting offered contributed to a growing public belief that “[testosterone] can alter human nature in a new and exciting way,” creating a “mythic force” that eventually far outweighed the “actual therapeutic value” of the hormone itself.25 Testosterone became a word with cultural cachet and even personality. Glands and hormones were something to be talked about at the dinner table and the parlor—another part of the broader public discussion of sex during the 1920s. Antoinette Donnelly, a reporter for the Tribune woman’s page, said that among women across America, “The trend in parlor conversation was switched…to ductless glands, monkey glands, X-ray power, and the various measures assumed to bear the secret of how to check the progress of age.”26
By the mid 1920s, Dr. Voronoff’s “monkey glands” had become part of international popular culture—mostly by way of song. “Since my recovery, the other day / I made a discovery, and that’s why I say / Understand / It was a monkey gland / That made a monkey out of me,” sang Billy Meyers in his popular 1923 vaudeville song, “You Made a Monkey Out of Me.” Songs also popped up in Brazil, where Voronoff lived for a time doing surgeries and giving public lectures to excited crowds. A song called “Mr. Voronoff” by Lamartine Babo and João Ross, sang his praises directly: “Now everyone / Can be strong and healthy / Nimble as a mountain goat / But with a monkey’s soul / All the old folks around town / Have joined in the refrain / They’re already enjoying youth / Brought to them by Voronoff.”
Clearly, Vornoff was making a name for himself. His fame wasn’t limited to songs, however. Even daily advertisements invoked “monkey glands.” A 1921 ad in the Tribune for Penberthy Re-Atomizer fluid, which cleaned oil build up out car motors, referenced monkey glands and the vigor they instilled in their recipients. Written from the POV of the car’s motor, the ad could very well have come from one of Voronoff’s “cured” patients:
“I was in a run-down condition—guess it was due to overwork…I became tired easily and felt groggy most of the time—coughing, spitting and choking. Mornings I couldn’t seem to get started as I should—but with the Re-Atomizer—Hot Dog! I feel fine. Talk about Monkey Glands—that’s just what the Penberthy Re-Atomizer is to me!”27
His work even became the butt of jokes in the funny pages. Check out this 1921 Tribune comic below:
Back in Paris, however, Voronoff’s work inspired something entirely different: the Monkey Gland cocktail! 🙂
T H E M O N K E Y G L A N D C O C K T A I L :
Like so many other 1920s cocktails, the Monkey Gland has a contested history. While most claim it was invented at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris by famous bartender Harry MacElhorn, a 1923 Washington Post article offers another explanation:
Whether made by MacElhorn or Meier, the Monkey Gland survived the Paris tourist trade of the 1920s. That’s because, according to Ted Haigh, author of Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails, the Monkey Gland’s original recipe is “entirely persuasive and is, in fact, a crowd pleaser.”28 However, there are two different ways to make this cocktail. The original European version calls for absinthe, while American bartender Patrick Duffy traded out the absinthe for Benedictine in 1934. Both versions are supposedly good. Try them out for yourself and let me know what you think! 🙂
H A R R Y ‘S 1 9 2 7 V E R S I O N :
This version is from Imbibe magazine, which adapted it from Harry MacElhone’s famous cocktail book Barflies and Cocktails (1927). Harry is credited with having inventing this cocktail, so this is probably the closest recipe to his original creation—so long as you use real homemade pomegranate-based grenadine, not the bottled red syrup stuff they sell in liquor stores.
1 1/2 oz. gin
1 1/2 oz. fresh orange juice
1 tsp. grenadine
1 tsp. simple syrup
1 tsp. absinthe
Shake ingredients in cocktail shaker with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
D U F F Y ‘ S 1 9 3 4 V E R S I O N :
This version comes from Duffy’s Official Mixer Manual and calls for Benedictine instead of absinthe, which makes it the American version. Unlike the original, it contains orange juice. Not sure when that crept in.
3 dashes Benedictine
3 dashes Grenadine
1/3 Orange Juice
2/3 Dry Gin
Stir well in ice and strain.
Use glass number 1
T H E M O D E R N V E R S I O N :
2 oz. London Dry Gin
1 oz. fresh-squeezed Orange Juice
1 tsp. homemade Grenadine
2 dashes Absinthe or Pernod
Twist of orange peel for garnish
Add all ingredients except garnish to shaker. Fill halfway with ice. Shake until chilled, about 20 seconds. Strain into chilled cocktail glass, garnish with orange peel, and serve.
Or you can watch mixologist Robert Hess make one on YouTube:
Cocktails weren’t the only illegal thing Voronoff’s work inspired, however. “There is no thirst in the human soul quite so unquenchable as the thirst for youth,” wrote Antoinette Donnelly in a 1924 Tribune beauty column–and some people in Chicago were willing to go to extreme lengths to obtain it…even if that meant starting a gland trafficking ring!29
It started on October 14th, 1922. Thirty-four year old Joseph Wozniak, a Polish sugar beet laborer, had been out drinking with a friend at a local saloon. He was waiting for a street car at 3 o’clock in the morning when “an automobile drew up to the curb” and four men lept out.30 They threw “a bag, probably containing chloroform,” over his head and dragged him into the car, where he lost consciousness. A few hours later he awoke on the sidewalk under a viaduct near 22nd Street—minus some important bits.31 A local doctor noted that “judging from the expertness with which the job was done…it was not done in revenge but for the purpose of transplanting….whoever did the work…was able to avert the customary hemorrhage, and infection of any kind.”32 This unique crime of “gland larceny,” then, was doubtless done to “rejuvenate some wealthy ancient”—and seemed to set off a spree.33
The next day, police found out about two more victims. Henry Johnson, a city electrician, was similarly set upon in the summer of 1922 while going home drunk one night, and came to later “in a hallway, his masculinity gone.”34 He was found and taken to the County hospital. Understandably, Henry wanted the whole thing hushed up—until he read about poor Joseph. Then he came forward to tell his story. The doctor who treated him said he’d seen the same thing happen to another patient two weeks earlier as well. Sensing a growing problem, State Attorney Robert E. Crowe and Police Captain Thomas Coughlin promised to “make every effort to end the practice and send the ‘gland ghouls’ to the penitentiary.”35 “Civilization cannot permit it to go on,” Captain Choughlin declared. “Goat glands or monkey glands may be all right, but human glands, Never!”36 In spite of their vows, however, the attacks continued, with the perpetrators leaving no leads or clues behind.
Then in November the cops seemed to catch a break. An amateur detective, calling himself “the sleuth from Wisconsin,” called in saying that Wozniack was a victim of $100,000 gland robbery backed by an unscrupulous millionaire. According to the sleuth, “an aged north shore millionaire about to marry a 25 year old bride had offered a surgeon $100,000 for new glands.”37 The surgeon then decided to “hire kidnappers” and find victims to supply glands. The sleuth named everyone involved, including the millionaire, whose name the police refused to release until they checked the story. Sadly, after looking into it, Chief Coughlin announced that the whole thing was “a wild cock and bull story,” where “nothing…would bear inquiry.”38 In the end, despite the declarations of the police captain and the state attorney, the crimes went unsolved—though no more attacks were reported after 1922, thankfully.
Voronoff’s ideas fell out of favor by the 1940s, mostly thanks to the fact that unlike what he’d promised, his patients continued to age and die despite repeated applications of monkey glands. While he went on to marry a hot young wife, turn an Italian villa into his personal mad scientist lab with cages full of chimps, and amass a huge fortune, he fell into obscurity and died at the age of 85 in 1951 in Switzerland, generally considered a laughingstock by the greater medical community. Despite the furor of serious interest his work engendered during the 1920s and 1930s, not much of him remains today in popular culture—except the name of this signature Prohibition cocktail. That’s not such a bad thing, though. Even I have to admit: his cocktail is pretty damn rejuvenating! 😉
1. “Display Ad 10 — no Title.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Sep 29, 1928. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180969153?accountid=3688.↩
2. “MONKEY BLOOD WILL MAKE WOMEN THIN, PEP UP MEN-VORONOFF.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Jun 21, 1922. http://search.proquest.com/docview/174974800?accountid=3688.↩
3. Fendrick, Raymond. “WIZARD SURGEON PLANS RENEWING ALL VITAL ORGANS.”Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Jun 20, 1922. http://search.proquest.com/docview/175009012?accountid=3688.↩
4. Avery, Delos. “7-Score Span Dr. Voronoff’s Goal for Man.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Jan 09, 1944. http://search.proquest.com/docview/176952493?accountid=3688.↩
5. Wales, Henry. “VORONOFF WINS PARIS CYNICS TO MONKEY GLANDS.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Oct 13, 1923. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180511943?accountid=3688.↩
6. Franklin, Jon. “Quacks Fill a Bandwagon with Rejuvenation Schemes.” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current File), May 30, 1983. http://search.proquest.com/docview/175872476?accountid=3688.↩
7. Brock, Pope. 2008. Charlatan: America’s most dangerous huckster, the man who pursued him, and the age of flimflam. New York: Crown Publishers. p. 33 and 36.↩
8. Franklin, Jon. “Quacks Fill a Bandwagon with Rejuvenation Schemes.”↩
11. Brock, Pope. 2008. Charlatan: America’s most dangerous huckster, the man who pursued him, and the age of flimflam.↩
12. Gibbons, Floyd. “RE-GLANDED MEN MAY CONTINUE LIFE AFTER LIFE.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Oct 07, 1922. http://search.proquest.com/docview/175037641?accountid=3688.↩
13. Fendrick, Raymond. “BA! BA! SHEEP TO GET NEW GLANDS; GROW 16 IN. WOOL.”Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Jul 13, 1923. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180494788?accountid=3688.↩
14. Fendrick, Raymond. “WIZARD SURGEON PLANS RENEWING ALL VITAL ORGANS.”↩
15. Bowman, Jim. “THE WAY WE WERE.” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current File), Oct 23, 1983. http://search.proquest.com/docview/175988580?accountid=3688.↩
16. “MONKEY GLANDS MAY MAKE KLAUS NEW RING MAN.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Feb 10, 1920. http://search.proquest.com/docview/174579225?accountid=3688.↩
18. Franklin, Jon. “Quacks Fill a Bandwagon with Rejuvenation Schemes.”↩
19. Gibbons, Floyd. “CROWDS ATTEND VORONOFF STORY OF RENEWED MEN.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Oct 08, 1922. http://search.proquest.com/docview/175053766?accountid=3688.↩
20. “YOUTH RESTORER WITH APE GLANDS TO BE HERE TODAY.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Aug 09, 1920. http://search.proquest.com/docview/174629937?accountid=3688.↩
21. Gibbons, Floyd. “CROWDS ATTEND VORONOFF STORY OF RENEWED MEN.”↩
22. Brock, Pope. 2008. Charlatan: America’s most dangerous huckster, the man who pursued him, and the age of flimflam. p. 46.↩
23. Hoberman, John M. 2005. Testosterone dreams: rejuvenation, aphrodisia, doping. Berkeley: University of California Press.p. 35-36.↩
24. Herrick, John. “GLAND GRAFTS MAY MEAN NEW MEN FOR OLD.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Oct 27, 1923. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180530768?accountid=3688.↩
25. Hoberman, John. Testosterone dreams. p. 27.↩
26. Donnelly, Antoinette. “THE REJUVENATION PROBLEM.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Aug 24, 1924. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180629787?accountid=3688.↩
27. “Display Ad 82 — no Title.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Dec 04, 1921. http://search.proquest.com/docview/174923310?accountid=3688.↩
28. Haigh, Ted. 2004. Vintage spirits & forgotten cocktails: from the alamagoozlum cocktail to the zombie : 80 rediscovered recipes and the stories behind them. Gloucester, Mass: Quarry Books. p. 213.↩
29. Donnelly, Antoinette. “THE REJUVENATION PROBLEM.”↩
30. “MAN IS KIDNAPED; GLAND PURLOINED.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Oct 14, 1922. http://search.proquest.com/docview/175041438?accountid=3688.↩
34. “TWO MORE LOSE GLANDS; SEARCH FOR KNIFE MEN.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Oct 15, 1922. http://search.proquest.com/docview/174965162?accountid=3688.↩
37. “AMATEUR SLEUTH TELLS OF $100,000 “GLAND ROBBERY”.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Nov 24, 1922. http://search.proquest.com/docview/175050219?accountid=3688.↩
38. “CHIEF EXPLODES “$100,000 GLAND ROBBERY” YARN.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Nov 25, 1922. http://search.proquest.com/docview/175012538?accountid=3688.↩