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Tom Kirkwood
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How to Grow Old

A physician’s prescription for aging.

I have been thinking a great deal about a long-dead Frenchman named Brown-Séquard, whose distinguished reputation as a medical scientist dissolved nearly overnight when he pridefully reported that he had discovered a treatment to stave off certain ravages of aging, especially those having to do with sexual performance.

Albrecht DurerCharles Édouard Brown-Séquard was born in 1817 on the island of Mauritius to an American father and a French mother. A brilliant researcher, he made many notable contributions to the understanding of the nervous system and metabolism during his career, and was rewarded by being named professor of experimental physiology at the Collège de France in 1878. He and his predecessor in the Collège chair, Claude Bernard, are properly credited with introducing the notion of hormones, those proteins secreted by ductless glands into the bloodstream, which control so much of the functioning of the internal organs. So impressed was Brown-Séquard by the role of hormones in energizing the animal body and supporting its stability that he began to experiment with them in an effort to rediscover youth.

In 1889, when he was 72 years old, Brown-Séquard reported to the French Academy of Sciences that he had been conducting self-experiments in rejuvenation. His method was to crush the testicles of guinea pigs or dogs and inoculate himself with a solution of the fluid thus obtained. Within three days of starting the treatments, he boasted, “I had recovered at least all of my former vigor . . . My digestion and the working of my bowels have improved considerably too . . . I also find mental work easier than I have for years.” And, he added, he had regained his sexual prowess.

Unfortunately, inoculating others with the same material had little effect. The treatment may not have helped Brown-Séquard very much either, because he died five years later without demonstrating so much as the most minimal objective evidence that he had accomplished anything in the interim except to age in the usual manner of septuagenarians.

Brown-Séquard’s attempt to regain his youth became such an object of derision that it besmirched his scientific heritage. But that did not deter others from involving themselves in similar undertakings, whether with testicular or ovarian extracts or the implantation of the organs themselves. Some of the experimenters were established scientists, but others were hucksters in search of a fast buck.