What have we not done to live forever? Adam Leith Gollner’s research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Over the past six weeks, this chronological crash course has examined the ways humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history. This week explores the nineteenth century. The final installment will run next Monday.
The only secret people keep
—Emily Dickinson, poem number 1748
Last week, Google launched Calico, a new company dedicated to fighting “aging and associated diseases.” The idea of aging as a curable disease (rather than a fact of life) can be traced back to the work of Charles Édouard Brown-Séquard (1817–94), the first medical scientist to make the idea of comprehending—if not controlling—aging a respectable aim.
Not much remembered today, Brown-Séquard was the chair of physiology at the Collége de France, one of the most prestigious appointments in nineteenth-century medicine. He is still known for successfully describing Brown-Séquard syndrome, a paralysis caused by severed spinal cords. His late-period research, however, occupies one of the more bizarre footnotes in medical history: toward the end of a distinguished career, he stunned the scientific community by announcing that he’d found a glandular elixir of eternal youth.
His speech on June 1, 1889, at the assembly of Paris’s Société de Biologie, is widely considered to mark the commencement of gerontology. (Gerontology, from geron, meaning “old man” in Greek, is the systematic study of aging.) Most members of the society were in their seventies, as was the swarthy, six-foot-four, bushy-bearded gentleman onstage. In unscheduled introductory remarks, Brown-Séquard confessed that his natural vigor had declined considerably over the last decade.
At that time, many scientists felt that old age was not a natural phenomenon, so a murmur of commiseration rippled through the room. Those graying authorities knew full well what it meant to grow elderly and infirm, nodding as Brown-Séquard lamented his own chronic pain—the lassitude, the insomnia, and, most delicate of all, the decline of his manliness. He had a pretty young wife, he was rich, successful, accomplished—et quand même.
“I have always thought that the weakness of old men was partly due to the diminution of the function of their sexual glands,” Brown-Séquard told the crowd. Shouldn’t there be a means of stimulating those tired old glands? To shock them back into action, he posited, would jump-start the entire system.
In Brown-Séquard’s time, the functioning of internal secretions, hormones, and our glandular organs was even less understood than it is today. The endocrine system remained an undiscovered enigma. Testicles were thought to produce a sort of vitalizing substance that dissipated with age. Contemporary science recognizes testosterone as an essential component of bodily function. Brown-Séquard believed it to be the fountain of youth.
For the past few months, he told the assembly, he had been performing auto-experimentation with liquefied extracts from various glands. Several weeks earlier, he’d opened up the scrotum of a puppy and removed the testicles. Cutting them up, he blended them with an aqueous solution, ran the liquid through a filtration device, and filled a syringe. He then administered injections of the extract into his own thigh. Guinea-pig testes worked just as well, he declared, having inoculated himself with them as well. The physiological effects were, he testified, most satisfying. He’d regained his youthful vitality—in every way. Just before the lecture, in fact, he’d managed an elusive feat offering empirical proof: he’d been able to “pay a visit” to his young wife.
Brown-Séquard boasted in peer-reviewed publications of having cured impotence. His brand of organotherapy—la méthode Séquardienne—became a hit with consumers. He constructed a fantastic machine “with a belt pulley, tubes, alembic, aeration bladders, instrument dials: into it he fed bull testes pulped, filtered through sand, ascepticized with boric acid, drawn off as a liquor.” Hundreds of elderly men started shooting up puréed testicles. Their deafness diminished, they claimed, hair thickened and darkened, energy levels rose. Penises hardened. Unfortunately, as we now know, they were only getting hits of the placebo effect.
In no time, critics started railing against Brown-Séquard’s “senile aberrations.” His contemporaries repeated the experiments, checking them against controls of plain-water injections. The results were conclusive: testicle-pulp inoculation had no noticeable effects. In fact, the saline serum Brown-Séquard had patented contained barely any hormones. It was just a turbid mélange of mashed bollocks in salt water. He was widely denounced. The pretty bride abandoned him. Prestigious journals no longer accepted his papers for publication. He fled to the seaside and died soon after.
Even as Brown-Sequard went about his experiments, that epoch’s finest literary minds were also contemplating eternal life. Emily Dickinson composed couplets about riding in carriages with immortality. Charles Baudelaire’s suicide note (from a failed 1845 attempt) explained, “I’m killing myself because I believe I am immortal.” Ralph Waldo Emerson described the way “we become immortal” though contemplating nature.
The transcendentalist philosophers’ theoretical musings were given flesh wings by Walt Whitman. In “Song of Myself,” he reclines on a hill, meditating upon a leaf of grass, and finds an unshakable conviction in never-ending life. Grass, he realizes, is the uncut hair of graves, life emerging from decay. “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death.” He is deathless, and the reader is deathless too. Everything is deathless: “I swear I think there is nothing but immortality!”
Whitman, singing of himself, is also singing of ourselves, “of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself. (They do not know how immortal but I know.)” Any insignificant object is connection to this truth. He finds God in the tiniest, most ordinary places. Some barns, any old gnat, the breeze; all revelations. Whitman wasn’t religious in the sense of belonging to an institutional organization, but nor could he accept the limitations of atheism or agnosticism. A little mouse “is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.” Unbelievers merely have to look around to be convinced, he wrote. Trees, seaweed, squirrels—everything is immortal: “I swear I see now that every thing has an eternal soul!”
This truth is omnigenous, Whitman felt, meaning it is in all things. We can find it anywhere, in the hollows at the bottom of the sea, in rocky riverbeds, in dust. If we ever lose sight of it, we can find it simply by looking under our boots, Whitman assured us. The message is all around us. “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.” So even if we can’t see it right away, we have the ability to see it. Finding it doesn’t mean understanding it. “I hear and behold God in every object,” Whitman admits, “yet understand God not in the least.”
Still, such realizations strip him of the fear of dying. “As to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me … and as to you Life I reckon you are the leaving of many deaths, (no doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before).”
Whether describing rebirth, reincarnation, or resurrection, Whitman (like Emily Dickinson) was more than open to life after death. He also believed that all religions had something to teach us: “I adopt each theory, myth, god, and demi-god, / I see that the old accounts, bibles, genealogies, are true, without exception.” What all those eschatologies teach is akin to Whitman’s preaching: death is both an end and a beginning. He never aligned himself with a single faith, but consider these lines:
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Adam Leith Gollner’s The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever (Scribner) is out now.