Historical essay
Sex Glands, Stem Cells, and “He Men”

Sex Glands, Stem Cells, and “He Men”

Masculinity and Medicine in the 1920s and Today

It was 1921. A time in America remembered for activity, life, and energy. But Arthur was tired. A merchant, 57 years old, he’d lived with chronic arthritis in both knees since his late 30s. Recently the pain had been getting worse. Arthur had trouble walking just one or two city blocks. And it wasn’t just his knees. He didn’t feel as ambitious as he used to. He felt his memory was failing. He also noted a “distinct decrease” in his sexual potency.[1] Rather than take these changes in his body as just the signs of aging, Arthur sought the services of a doctor who might help him. The doctor Arthur went to see was Harry Benjamin.

We don’t know where Arthur heard of Dr. Benjamin. It’s possible that he read one of the increasingly common reports in the newspaper about the German-born New York physician who was introducing a new surgery to America that could combat the effects of aging. It’s also possible he heard about Benjamin from a family doctor. Whatever the case, Arthur visited Benjamin’s practice and, after an examination confirmed his complaints, Benjamin scheduled him for an operation.

Almost two months later Arthur returned for his final post-op examination. Benjamin noted that Arthur’s face and hands seemed firmer or more taut. Arthur reported that it was less painful to walk and that all of his friends had noticed a change in his behavior and speech. He had more “pep” and said that he saw “the world with different eyes” since the operation. Arthur also told Benjamin that his sexual activity had “markedly improved.”[2] In short, Arthur had regained a fair measure of youthful vigor in just seven weeks.

Stories like Arthur’s were common in newspapers, magazines, and many medical journals in Europe and the United States in the early twentieth century. What was this seemingly miraculous surgery that could make someone look and feel years younger? Most people referred to it as rejuvenation. It often involved either the surgical implantation of testicular material or, in Arthur’s case, tying off one of the client’s testicles (vasoligation, a process similar to a vasectomy, except that it often left the patient fertile). The medical explanation at the time was that the effects of aging could be traced to a flagging endocrine system. Some doctors believed that it should be possible to jump-start a person’s hormone production by increasing the amount of hormone produced by the sex glands.

Dr. Eugen Steinach developed the surgical technique Harry Benjamin used to “rejuvenate” patients. Source: El Paso Herald, August 14, 1920.

My first reaction when I came across stories like this from the 1920s was to wonder what the heck these people were thinking. The more I read, though, the more I felt that these stories had more to do with how we define masculinity and with our expectations for “modern medicine” than they did with yet another fountain-of-youth fad.

It’s easy to look back and chuckle at the naivety — let alone weirdness — of implanting testicular matter or tying off men’s testicles in hope of producing more hormones. It’s also easy to tsk-tsk at hucksters like John Brinkley, who made a lot of money off of “goat gland” surgeries around the same time and with similar claims. But the easy dismissals — the “we know so much better now” responses — gloss over the deeper story; the story about how we define ourselves and our relationship to medicine. Looking at the news today, for example, we see remarkably similar promises and debates surrounding stem cells, steroids (anabolic-androgenic steroids are, essentially, testosterone), and other hormone therapies. These discussions are also similarly based on our understandings of masculinity and medicine.

Our definitions of masculinity, and the way we understand medicine and its promises, have changed since 1920, but they remain similar in some striking ways; and they remain powerfully influenced by culture. Take a moment and think of the first words that come to mind when you hear the word “masculine.” How much do these words mesh with the G.I. Joe in the opening photograph? What does this mean for people who don’t reflect these characteristics? That they are abnormal? Atypical? In need of medical therapy or treatment? What about people who exhibited these characteristics at one time but don’t any longer?

The language used by rejuvenation supporters in the 1920s and repeatedly in the popular press equated masculinity with action, power, competitiveness, and, at least implicitly, sexual activity. It implied that aging, and the changes that accompanied it, were emasculating — but also that modern medicine could stop or reverse the process.

These relationships between the body and medicine are particularly clear when it comes to athletes, who are pressured by both the competitiveness of their jobs and the implicit (or explicit) subcultures of their sports to seek whatever means they can of boosting their performance or lengthening their careers. Take Bartolo Colon, who was in the news about a year ago after making a striking comeback with the NY Yankees. His return to baseball came after a treatment in which a doctor took stem cells from his fat and bone marrow and injected them into his elbow and shoulder to ostensibly help repair the damage. It was unclear to what extent this therapy worked, but it speaks to similar desires as those found in Arthur’s story. The debates around so-called stem cell therapy today carry echoes of those surrounding rejuvenation in the 1920s, with some warning caution and further research and others pushing ahead.

Stories like these raise questions about performance, normality, and social pressure, as well. Some unanswered questions are: What happens if these therapies become more commonplace? What happens to the definition of normal masculinity if hormone therapy, stem cell therapy, or some other procedure becomes common and safe? Similar questions could be raised about performance and productivity in school or in the workforce.

The key point I’d like to make here is that many of the most basic things we take for granted — what masculinity is, as much as femininity or even normality — are shaped by culture. These definitions are, in a sense, created, recreated, and reinforced through things like popular culture, advertising, recreation, laws, day-to-day interaction, and tradition. And the medical community, today as much as in the 1920s, relies on these definitions to determine what is normal, and what needs to be treated.

This is by no means as simple a distinction as I’m making here. The border between illness and difference is not a clear one. The problem, though, is that medicine often simplifies this distinction. What we need to do is bear this complexity in mind — to embrace it rather than take it for granted — and to remember that difference does not always need to be cured, and that there can be many definitions of something like masculinity.

For further reading:

Pope Brock, Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam.

John Hoberman, Testosterone Dreams: Rejuvenation, Aphrodisia, Doping, 2005.

Laura Davidow Hirshbein, “The Glandular Solution: Sex, Masculinity, and Aging in the 1920s” Journal of the History of Sexuality 9, no. 3 (July 1, 2000): 277–304.

Cited Work

1. Arthur is a pseudonym. The details of this story are from a case study Harry Benjamin reported in a 1922 issue of American Medicine: Harry Benjamin, “The Effects of Vasectomy (Steinach Operation)” American Medicine 28, no. 8 (August 1922): 435–443; quote on page 441.

2. Benjamin, “The Effects of Vasectomy,” 441.

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This post by Adam Turner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Adam Turner has a Master's degree in history from the University of Oregon and works as a web developer with a love of clean, standards-based markup and accessible, user-centered design.