The history of our quest for eternal youth is a history of fools’ errands. It’s also, if your glass is half full, a buoyant tribute to the human imagination—or at least to the spirit of determination. We want so badly to stay young. We’ve sought to bathe in the Fountain of Youth, to imbibe the Elixir of Life, and to—well, to do whatever it is one does with the Philosopher’s Stone. (Grind it up and snort it?) But few solutions to the problem of aging are as risible or as tragic as that of Serge Voronoff, who essayed to stave off death by replacing old men’s testicles with those of healthy young monkeys.
Voronoff rose to prominence about a century ago, and his methods were in practice, if not in vogue, through the 1940s. His first book, 1920’s Life: A Study of the Means of Restoring Vital Energy and Prolonging Life, is a goulash of Freudian fixations and well-intentioned pseudoscience. Having observed that eunuchs tend to die young—“their faces are glabrous and livid, and their hanging cheeks make them look like old women. Most of them are fat, with rounded outlines and, in many cases, voluminous breasts”—Voronoff came to the deeply specious conclusion that testicles must hold the spermatozoon-shaped key to a long, vigorous life. He began to experiment by grafting the sex glands of lambs into aging rams, and went to great lengths to convince himself that his aim was true:
I know that inventors readily confuse their desire with realization, and that in all sincerity, by a sort of auto-suggestion, they behold as fact what, actually, has only transpired in their imagination. This, however, cannot be the case here. The dropping of a lamb in a stable where for a year and a half an impotent old ram, tottering on its legs, suffering from urinary incontinence as a result of extreme old age, has been shut up with a young ewe cannot be regarded as auto-suggestion … It is equally impossible for me to admit any error of interpretation when I see the picture fixed by my camera of an animal castrated at the age of six months, and grafted a year later, showing an amorous ardor to which the female is complaisantly lending herself … I actually have in my possession animals which have passed beyond the extreme limit of their lives … In addition to those who are malevolent, jealous and envious, one must always allow for those who are repelled by anything that is new. They will not accept it save in order of seniority and when it returns to them, like a veteran, with well-merited service stripes.
It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to read between the lines—“an amorous ardor to which the female is complaisantly lending herself”—and see that Voronoff aspired to more than mere longevity. The man wanted to copulate like a teenager. And in this he was not, of course, alone. Soon millionaires were queuing up to receive the virile testes of executed criminals; but the supply of balls from human males couldn’t hope to match the demand, and so Voronoff turned to chimpanzees and baboons. Clinics in France and Algiers sprang up to perform the grafting operation, and a monkey incubator on the Italian Riviera ensured that every man had a pair of glands on hand. By the early thirties, some five hundred men had undergone the procedure, and Voronoff had accrued enough wealth to occupy the entire first floor of a swish Parisian hotel, with a cortege of chauffeurs, valets, and personal secretaries in two. He’d also found two mistresses. This is the power of the Placebo Effect.
Let’s skip the inevitable fall from grace and concentrate instead on Voronoff’s appropriately robust cultural legacy. He was the basis for a scalpel-happy, gland-obsessed Professor Preobrazhensky, in Bulgakov’s Heart of the Dog; E. E. Cummings gave him a line (“famous doctor who inserts monkeyglands in millionaires”) and the Marx Brothers a song (“If you’re too old for dancing / Get yourself a monkey gland”). But the strangest tribute is The Gland Stealers, a 1922 science-fiction novel by Bertram Gayton. I’ve just finished it so you don’t have to.
Gayton—a pseudonym for Bertram Edgar Guyton, who apparently never wrote another book—sets his tale in London, where ninety-five-year-old Gran’pa Hadley has gone to live with his great-grandson, George. Gran’pa is at death’s door, and when he reads of “the glandular rejuvenation of the human race” among the faits divers, you’d better believe he wants in on the action. George is skeptical, of course. “It seems inhuman to go about cutting up monkeys and things to get hold of their glands,” he says. “I hope to goodness the neighbors don’t get to hear of it.”
Oh, but they well, for Gran’pa has absconded to the East End to buy a monkey—such sundries are readily available there, I guess. This, plus a healthy bribe (“I suggest five thousand dollars down for you, and then—ten thousand for each year I live”) convinces George of the old man’s seriousness, and soon he’s undergone the operation. His pair of glands are thyroidal, not testicular, and they belong to a gorilla named Alfred.
Here we expect a bit of moralizing—surely there’s no way the operation can succeed. But that’s where The Gland Stealers is unsettling. Gran’pa gets no comeuppance for attempting to best fate. Instead, he feels great, better than ever, and with this new influx of glandular joie de vivre he does what many a man before and after have done: he buys a motor scooter. He also behaves like a schoolboy at a performance of “that hardy old stage annual”; he builds a secret fort at home; he goes out flying airplanes and resolves to hunt gorillas for their glands in equatorial Africa. Since he’s part gorilla, he knows all their calls. And his health has hardened him into quite the mercenary, much to George’s chagrin:
“It’s their glands you want; the brutes themselves, as far as you’re concerned, are merely perambulating depositories for the Elixir of Life. You keep them alive simply to keep their glands alive. A dead gland is useless, and …”
“Wait a moment, young man! Ever heard of cold storage?”
From here, the novel becomes a kind of picaresque, as Gran’pa, in a gorilla costume, gallivants through the African jungle in pursuit of gorillas to neutralize and capture. When necessary, he uses an anesthetic gas.
And—that’s it, really. The book endeavors toward no broader sociological comment, no cruel resolution. Gran’pa gets monkey glands and feels better, enough to dedicate his life to procuring more of them. Though the novel contains such amusing phrases as “monkey-gland quest,” “ice-packed vacuum flasks,” and “wicked, unrejuvenated old men,” it fails to deliver on its tantalizing promise, which is that an old man will suffer horribly from his hubris. Indeed, even after other men find that the operation has failed them, Gran’pa himself is going strong; he remains in the bush, hunting gorillas. George concludes the story with a bitter omen:
His arm-chair is still by the fireside—waiting. He cannot resist its call—and mine—forever. Time is on our side.
Time will win.
Certainly it won in Veronoff’s case. Though he lived a long, fruitful life, he succumbed at the age of eighty-five to an infection following a fall. “Few took his claims seriously,” the Times, who had once championed his work, wrote in their obituary.
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.