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Serge Voronoff

Serge Abrahamovitch Voronoff was a French surgeon of Russian extraction who gained fame for his technique of grafting monkey testicle tissue on to the testicles of men for purportedly therapeutic purposes while working in France in the 1920s and 1930s. The technique brought him a great deal of money, although he was already independently wealthy. As his work fell out of favour, he went from being highly respected to a subject of ridicule.

Background

  • Serge (Samuel) Voronoff was born to a Jewish family in the village Shekhman, Tambov Governorate in Russia (now Tambov Oblast) shortly before July 10, 1866, the date of his circumcision in a synagogue. His father Abram Veniaminovich Voronov was a former cantonist and a distiller; his mother was Rachel-Esther Lipsky.

  • Education

    • At the age of 18, after graduating from the Voronezh Realschule, he emigrated to France, where he studied medicine. In 1895 at the age of 29, Voronoff became a naturalized French citizen. Voronoff was a student of French surgeon, biologist, eugenicist, and Nobel Prize recipient Alexis Carrel, from whom he learnt surgical techniques of transplantation. Between 1896 and 1910, he worked in Egypt, studying the retarding effects that castration had on eunuchs, observations that would lead to his later work on rejuvenation.

    Career

    • In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, trends in xenotransplantation included the work of Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard. In 1889, Voronoff injected himself under the skin with extracts from ground-up dog and guinea pig testicles. These experiments failed to produce the desired results of increased hormonal effects to retard aging.

      Voronoff's experiments launched from this starting point. He believed glandular transplants would produce more sustained effects than mere injections. Voronoff's early experiments in this field included transplanting thyroid glands from chimpanzees to humans with thyroid deficiencies. He moved on to transplanting the testicles of executed criminals into millionaires, but, when demand outstripped supply, he turned to using monkey testicle tissue instead.

      In 1917, Voronoff began being funded by Evelyn Bostwick, a wealthy American socialite and the daughter of Jabez Bostwick. The money allowed him to begin transplantation experiments on animals. Bostwick also acted as his laboratory assistant at the Collège de France in Paris, and consequently became the first woman admitted to that institution. They married in 1920.

      Between 1917 and 1926, Voronoff carried out over five hundred transplantations on sheep and goats, and also on a bull, grafting testicles from younger animals to older ones. Voronoff's observations indicated that the transplantations caused the older animals to regain the vigor of younger animals. He also considered monkey-gland transplantation an effective treatment to counter senility.

      His first official transplantation of a monkey gland into a human took place on June 12, 1920. Thin slices (a few millimetres wide) of testicles from chimpanzees and baboons were implanted inside the patient's scrotum, the thinness of the tissue samples allowing the foreign tissue to fuse with the human tissue eventually. By 1923, 700 of the world's leading surgeons at the International Congress of Surgeons in London, England, applauded the success of Voronoff's work in the "rejuvenation" of old men.

      In his book Rejuvenation by Grafting (1925), Voronoff describes what he believes are some of the potential effects of his surgery. While "not an aphrodisiac", he admits the sex drive may be improved. Other possible effects include better memory, the ability to work longer hours, the potential for no longer needing glasses (due to improvement of muscles around the eye), and the prolonging of life. Voronoff also speculates that the grafting surgery might be beneficial to people with "dementia praecox", the mental illness known today as schizophrenia.

      Voronoff's monkey-gland treatment was in vogue in the 1920s. The poet E. E. Cummings sang of a "famous doctor who inserts monkeyglands in millionaires", and Chicago surgeon Max Thorek, for whom the Thorek Hospital and Medical Center is named, recalled that soon, "fashionable dinner parties and cracker barrel confabs, as well as sedate gatherings of the medical élite, were alive with the whisper - 'Monkey Glands'."

      By the early 1930s, over 500 men had been treated in France by his rejuvenation technique (including Voronoff's younger brother Georges), and thousands more around the world, such as in a special clinic set up in Algiers. Noteworthy people who had the surgery included Harold McCormick, chairman of the board of International Harvester Company. To cope with the demand for the operation, Voronoff set up his own monkey farm on the Italian Riviera, employing a former circus-animal keeper to run it. French-born U.S. coloratura soprano Lily Pons was a frequent visitor to the farm. With his growing wealth, Voronoff occupied the whole of the first floor of one of Paris's most expensive hotels, surrounded by a retinue of chauffeurs, valets, personal secretaries and two mistresses.

      Voronoff's later work included transplants of monkey ovaries into women. He also tried the reverse experiment, transplanting a human ovary into a female monkey, and then tried to inseminate the monkey with human sperm. The notoriety of this experiment resulted in the novel Nora, la guenon devenue femme (Nora, the Monkey Turned Woman) by Félicien Champsaur. In 1934, he was the first to officially recognise scientific work done by Greek Professor Skevos Zervos.

      Voronoff's experiments ended following pressure from a sceptical scientific community and a change in public opinion. It became clear that Voronoff's operations did not produce any of the results he claimed.

      Voronoff died on September 3, 1951, in Lausanne, Switzerland, from complications following a fall. While recovering from a broken leg, Voronoff suffered chest difficulties, thought either to be pneumonia or possibly a blood clot from his leg that moved to his lungs.

    Works

    Connections

    • Voronoff married his first wife, Marguerite Barbe, in 1897; who died in 1910. He married his second wife, Evelyn Bostwick in 1920 (Bostwick's daughter from a previous marriage was Joe Carstairs), who translated Voronoff's book, Life: a means of restoring vital energy and prolinging life, into English. She died on March 3, 1921, at the age of 48. Her legacy gave Voronoff a large income for the rest of his life.

      Ten years later, Voronoff married Gerti Schwartz, believed by some to be the illegitimate daughter of King Carol of Romania. She outlived him and became the Condesa da Foz upon Voronoff's death.
    • spouses: Marguerite Barbe
    • Evelyn Bostwick
    • Gerti Schwartz
    Serge Voronoff
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    Died September 3, 1951
    (aged 85)
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