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Mind of Its Own a Cultural History Penisby David Friedman
Chapter 6: The Punctureproof Balloon
Farther down the Strip, Siegfried and Roy were making a tiger vanish into thin air, Sammy Davis Jr. was belting "I Gotta Be Me," and two circus aerialists — one sitting on the other's shoulders — walked fifty yards of tightrope without a net. But even in Vegas they'd never seen a show like this.
The year was 1983, the showman a complete novice. But this was no Open Mike Night. The person on stage, a Briton named Giles Brindley, was a professional — a physician, in fact. The Nevada desert was blooming with conventioneers and Dr. Brindley was in town to address several thousand members of the American Urological Association. That's a hall full of men who examine prostates for a living. In Vegas they call this a tough room. Even so, Brindley wasn't nervous. He had presented numerous papers at scientific meetings like this in Europe, where his reputation for original research, especially in bioengineering, was legendary. In 1964 Brindley invented the world's first visual prosthesis. Three pairs of electronic eyes were implanted in human volunteers before the project was terminated because of high costs and low effectiveness. Still, Brindley's design concept impressed his peers as a major theoretical breakthrough, perhaps a work of genius. Unusual physiological questions had always piqued Brindley's curiosity. Once, while traveling in a car, he dropped a rabbit from the roof to the floor whenever the auto made a sharp turn. Brindley wanted to see how centrifugal force affected the creature's ability to land on its feet. The car, it should be noted, was moving nearly eighty miles per hour at the time.
On this particular night in Nevada, Brindley was standing still behind a podium. Lately he had been concentrating on physiological problems of the male human. The buzz from London was intriguing. Brindley, who begged off speaking at a similar conference months earlier because of pressing research, was rumored to be experimenting with drugs that produced an eye-opening result: when injected in the penis they created an erection that lasted for hours. This supposedly had occurred in men who were impotent for decades, even in men who were paralyzed. If Brindley had really done this, he had solved a physiological mystery that had been unsolved for thousands of years. But the full significance was even greater. If true, Brindley's feat did more than stretch the limits of being a medical man. It stretched the limits of being a man.
Impotence had only recently become a serious subject of inquiry for urologists. For much of the previous century, they had waged a halfhearted, and ultimately unsuccessful, struggle with psychiatrists for primacy in the field of male sexual functioning. After Freud, impotence was seen by most patients and healers as a mental problem. This was fine with most urologists, who were happy to specialize in removing stones, treating incontinence, and shrinking swollen prostates. In the 1970s, however, technical advances gave these surgeons new impotence therapies that, while extreme, actually worked. One was the inflatable penile implant. The other was revascularization, a procedure that rewired the arteries through which blood enters the penis in an operation not unlike a heart bypass.
In 1983 rumors of Brindley's drug experiments provoked skepticism among doctors committed to those new treatments. One urologist approached Brindley at the Las Vegas convention and challenged him to prove his drug therapy's effectiveness beyond charts, tables, and graphs. Brindley, a former competitive athlete, decided to do just that. The result was perhaps the most memorable public moment in all of modern medicine. After calmly presenting his data from behind the podium, Brindley stepped in front of it and pulled down his pants. Moments earlier, you see, he had gone to the men's room and secretly injected himself. And now, before a room full of strangers, there it was: the, uh, "evidence."
The audience gasped. Brindley did not want the urologists to think he was fooling them with a silicone prosthesis, so he headed into the crowd, proof in hand, and asked them to inspect it. "I had been wondering why Brindley was wearing sweatpants," says Dr. Arnold Melman, chief of urology at New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who was there. "Suddenly I knew." Some urologists accepted Brindley's offer, slipping on their eyeglasses to get a better look. Never before had so many penis doctors seen another man's erect penis. And in this singular moment, human sexuality, the healing profession, and man's relationship with his penis underwent a huge transformation, the consequences of which are still being felt today.
This is because Brindley did more than give new meaning to the term scientific presentation. He gave birth to the newest idea of the penis: a totally medicalized organ stripped of its psychic significance and mystery and transformed into a tiny network of blood vessels, neurotransmitters, and smooth-muscle tissue knowable only to a credentialed scientist. This white-coated expert sets standards for the organ's size and rigidity against which all erections must be measured, and decrees any variation from that norm is a disease. The organ's intrinsically finicky nature — that constant of human history — has been redefined as a pathology addressable only by drugs and/or surgery.
This penis is impervious to religious teachings, Freudian insights, racial stereotypes, and feminist criticism. It is no longer part of a human dialogue. It is a thing — a virtually punctureproof balloon that can be reinflated at will, no matter how often it has gone flat in the past, or why. Man's testy relationship with his defining organ has been medically pacified. The longest power struggle in every man's life is over, the uncontrollable has been brought to heel, and the ultimate male fantasy has come true: A penis that is hard on demand, potentially hard for hours, and definitely hard enough to satisfy the most demanding women. Maybe even a bunch of them.
Now urologists see erect penises all the time. They create them in their offices, then show patients how to re-create them at home using the drug therapy pioneered by Brindley and others. Transurethral pellets can now achieve the same result without a needle, and, on March 27, 1998, the Food and Drug Administration gave its sanction to Viagra, the first oral agent approved to treat erectile dysfunction (ED). The astonishing medical, social, and commercial success of Pfizer's little pill — Viagra has been taken by more than 7 million men, producing annual revenue estimated at $1 billion — has led to the rapid expansion of an erection industry. This commercial alliance of ED specialists and drug manufacturers (the latter hire the former as consultants and supply the funding for nearly all the research done in the field) is now seeking faster, longer-acting, and even more profitable medications, a quest the psychologist and social critic Leonore Tiefer has called "the pursuit of the perfect penis."
The lucrative new therapies developed and marketed by Pfizer and others are covered by the media as a personal-hygiene update for the estimated 30 million Americans who struggle with erectile dysfunction, a number supplied (critics say "fabricated") by the very erection industry that profits from identifying those men as patients. There is no doubt that these erection drugs have helped millions — Viagra works — not to mention the millions more who own drug-company stock. But this coverage misses the larger point. The erection industry is more than just a health or business story. It is the latest, and perhaps final, chapter in the story of man's relationship with his penis.
The Hindu Samhita of Sushruta (circa 1000 B.C.) mentioned several impotence remedies, most of them to be eaten. "By eating the testes of a he-goat...fried in clarified butter prepared from churning milk," the Samhita said, "a man is enabled to visit a hundred women one after the other." Early Western cultures also consumed animal testes to restore or improve potency. The Greek physician Nicander (second century B.C.) recommended those obtained from a hippopotamus, a prescription that no doubt required a wealthy client list. It seems there were many industrious erection entrepreneurs among our ancient ancestors, but the true forefathers of the modern erection industry are found in the nineteenth century, when some Western urologists devised treatments that today seem (at best) hilarious and (at worst) barbaric. It was not a good time to be an impotence patient. But it was an excellent time to be a quack.
This was because even well-educated, legitimate doctors did not understand the physiology of erections very well. Thanks to pioneers such as Leonardo da Vinci, Ambroise Paré, and Regnier de Graaf they knew an erection was produced by a surge of blood. But they did not know how that blood got there or what kept it there once it arrived. The sixteenth-century anatomist Costanzo Varolio attributed the ability of the penis to rise to "erector muscles." Most doctors still believed this three centuries later, though the mechanism of those muscles had never been conclusively demonstrated. It was not until 1863 that German scientist Conrad Eckhard showed the role of the nervous system in erectile functioning. He did this by applying electric current to the pelvic nerves of a dog, who responded by becoming erect. "That there is a neurological aspect to the erection process seems like common sense now," says Dr. Arthur L. Burnett, director of the Male Consultation Clinic at Johns Hopkins University. "But you have to realize our understanding of erections has gone through a long evolutionary process. It was once thought that spirits controlled erections and that the penis was filled with air. Much of our scientific information about erections is less than two hundred years old. A lot of it is less than twenty years old."
In the nineteenth century this combination of some good information, with lots of bad, led to some bizarre and painful impotence treatments. One of the most honored physicians in America then was Samuel W. Gross, author of A Practical Treatise on Impotence, Sterility and Allied Disorders of the Male Sexual Organs, published in 1881. Gross was professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, just as his father, Samuel D. Gross, had been before him. (The artist Thomas Eakins immortalized both doctors — focusing on the father, from whom he had taken an anatomy class — in his 1875 painting The Gross Clinic.)
The younger Gross, like many of his peers, was convinced of the link between erectile failure in intercourse and masturbation. Gross specifically attributed impotence to "strictures" inside the base of the penis, where the urethra is ringed by the prostate gland. These strictures, Gross said, were the result of inflammation and swelling of the prostatic urethra, a condition he called "prostatic hyperaesthesia," caused by self-abuse or involuntary night "pollutions." Gross made this diagnosis by inserting a long, thin, nickel-plated instrument called a bougie down his patient's urethra. As he conceded on page 34 of A Practical Treatise, this procedure was not always a pleasant experience for the person bougied.
Case XIII. A mechanic, twenty-three years of age....Examination with a No. 25 explorer [the bougie] disclosed intense hyperaesthesia of the entire urethra, and particularly of its prostatic portion....As soon as the instrument entered the passage it occasioned tremor and retraction of the testes, and when it reached the prostatic portion [the patient] shrank from the excessive suffering from which it awakened, and the muscles of the lids, nose, and mouth twitched convulsively. On its withdrawal, the bulb [at the tip of the bougie] brought forth a considerable prostatic discharge. [The patient] afterward rode to his home on street cars, and about two hours later, after urinating, was seized with a curious crawling sensation in his arms and legs, lost consciousness, and, when found by his friends, was lying on the floor, his face livid.
Amazingly, this patient returned to Dr. Gross to have his condition treated, which meant several more intimate invasions. Blasts of hot and cold water were sent down his urethra, a hot rubber plug was jammed into his rectum, and the bougie was reinserted after being dipped in corrosive chemicals.
In cases that still failed to respond, many urologists used a method inspired by Varolio's sixteenth-century anatomical speculations and Eckhard's more recent experiments on dogs: they applied electricity to the (mythical) erector muscles inside the penis. The first step in this procedure required the doctor to insert a twin-pronged metal instrument, shaped like a tiny pitchfork, handle-first into the meatus (pronounced me-ATE-us) of the penis, the place we nonurologists call "the hole." The prongs were connected to a small generator, which was then turned on and off. An illustration in a contemporaneous urology textbook shows the treatment to resemble our current practice of restarting a car battery with jumper cables. Many doctors touting electrotherapy sold the machines providing current to the disabled penis or wrote books extolling the virtues of the treatment. Very few of them lost money at it.
What seems Frankensteinish to our ears had its roots in a mixed soil of old superstitions and new science. In Emperor Nero's day, orgies were often fueled by the Viagra of ancient Rome — liquids made from the crushed testes of goats or wolves. Such preparations could not have had any real effect, except as early testimony to the power of placebos. But the enduring nature of that effect no doubt explains why medieval physician Johannes Mesue the Elder was still prescribing testicular extracts eight centuries later — or why, eight centuries after that, the English medical reference Salmon's Dispensatory endorsed the use of testes extracts from dozens of species.
Aper, the boar: the stones and pizzle dried, and given in powder, help weakness and barrenness. Canis, the dog: the testicles and secretion provoke lust....Buteo, the buzzard: the testicles help weakness of generation.
An understanding of the true androgenic role of testicles (that is, on secondary sex characteristics such as facial hair) was not achieved until 1848, when the German physiologist Arnold Berthold did the following experiment on six freshly castrated roosters. Two of these birds had one of their own testicles returned to their abdominal cavity; two others had testes from another bird in the experiment implanted in them; the remaining two were left castrated, as controls. Berthold saw that the comb and wattle of his castrated birds quickly deteriorated after surgery, but returned to normal in the birds that had been "re-testified." He attributed this, correctly, to "the productive function of the testes, i.e., by their action on the blood stream, and then by the corresponding reaction of the blood upon the entire organism."
This experiment is now considered one of the founding acts of modern endocrinology. Unfortunately, it was ignored for the next fifty years. As a result, ignorance of the testes' true function, and misconceptions about their potency-restoring properties if eaten, continued. Thus, when Charles Brown-Sequard, one of the world's most respected physicians, said he had rejuvenated his own sexual powers in 1889 by ingesting a potion made of crushed dog testes, one circle dating back to the ancients was completed, and a new one, thankfully of much shorter duration, was about to begin. Weeks after his "rejuvenation," Brown-Sequard was mailing vials of his liquide testiculaire (obtained from dogs or guinea pigs) to any physician who wanted to experiment with it. When these doctors were unable to replicate his results, they concluded the problem was not with the concept, but with the materials: the extract was too weak. What was needed, they thought, were actual testes.
As it happened, the first testicle transplant in the medical literature was not about sex. At least not directly. The patient seen by Drs. Levi Hammond and Howard Sutton in Philadelphia in November 1911 was a nineteen-year-old boy who had been kicked in the scrotum, after which one of his testes had swollen by more than ten inches. The doctors' original plan, motivated primarily by aesthetic concerns, was to replace that testicle with one from a sheep. But a day before that was to happen, a human testicle became available from a young man who bled to death. Somewhat impulsively, the surgeons decided to use it. They removed the testicle from the donor, flushed it with sterile saline, stored it overnight in a glass jar at forty degrees Fahrenheit, then transplanted it into their patient the following morning. (This appears to be the first transplant of any human organ in the medical literature.) A month later, however, the doctors were disappointed to see that their transplant had atrophied considerably. Hammond and Sutton never published a follow-up. Knowing what we know now, it is safe to say the transplant was rejected.
But the fact of tissue rejection — indeed, the very idea of the body's immune system — was not yet well-understood, so testicle transplants continued. Chicago urologist Victor Lespinasse claimed to have performed a transplant several months before Hammond and Sutton, reporting his results in Journal of the American Medical Association and Chicago Medical Report a few years later. Unlike Hammond and Sutton, Lespinasse's goal most definitely was improving sexual function. But rather than transplanting an entire testicle, as the Philadelphians had done, he carved the donor's testicle into slices, then grafted them into muscle tissue in and around the recipient's scrotum. This is how Lespinasse described the procedure in 1914:
A man, aged 38, consulted me in January, 1911, to find out if anything could be done for the loss of both testicles. One testicle was removed during a hernia operation; the other had been lost in [an] accident....He was unable to have intercourse, which was his chief reason for seeking medical advice....
A testicle from a normal man was easily obtained....The two patients were anesthetized at the same time, and the recipient prepared as follows: The scrotum was opened high up and a bed prepared in the same way as we prepare the bed for the reception of an undescended testicle....The fibers of the rectus muscle were exposed and separated...and then the testicle to be transplanted was removed. It was stripped of the epididymis...and then sliced transversely to its long axis [in slices] approximately 1 mm. thick. The central slice and the one next to it were taken out and placed among the fibers of the rectus muscle. Another slice was placed in the scrotum.
Lespinasse wrote that he was "surprised at the number of testicles that are available for transplantation purposes." He made no mention, however, if (or how much) those living donors were paid for their services.
Four days later Lespinasse's patient "had a strong erection accompanied by marked sexual desire. He insisted on leaving his hospital bed to satisfy this desire." This the patient did — and continued to do so, Lespinasse reported, for the next two years, after which the surgeon lost contact with him. Even so, Lespinasse was reluctant to take all the credit. "The sexual function is about nine-tenths psychic," he wrote, "and how much is due to the strong mental stimulus engendered by the operation, and how much to the actual functioning of the [grafted testicular] cells, is impossible to determine."
That uncertainty did not stop Lespinasse from doing more transplants. In 1922 one of his gland-grafting cases made the front page of the New York Times, no doubt because of the identity of his patient, the chairman of the International Harvester Corporation — the IBM of that era — Harry F. McCormick. The fact that McCormick, then fifty-one, was married to Edith Rockefeller, daughter of John D., made him one of the richest men in the world twice over. That he was carrying on a well-publicized love affair with a beautiful European opera star made him even more newsworthy. The headline and subheads in the Times piece read, "SECRET OPERATION FOR H. F. M'CORMICK / Family Refuses to Say Whether His Stay in Hospital is for Gland Transplanting / KEEPING YOUNG IS HIS HOBBY / Lespinasse, His Surgeon, A Leader in Rejuvenation, Also is Silent on Case." The donor was rumored to be an Illinois blacksmith. True or not, the following ditty, inspired by verse by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was soon heard in taverns all across America:
Under the spreading chestnut tree,
Lespinasse was certainly getting famous for his work, but a colleague in Chicago had gone him one better. In 1920 Dr. G. Frank Lydston informed the press that he had transplanted a testicle into himself. Lydston wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association of nine other grafts, eight done by him on volunteers, the other done by Leo L. Stanley, chief surgeon at California's San Quentin prison. Dr. Stanley had no shortage of freshly deceased donors — inmates were executed often at his place of work. Lydston's JAMA report on one of Stanley's cases, based on facts given him by the prison doctor, is a peerless blend of optimism and condescension:
Case 9 — A man, aged 25, evidently a moron, committed for burglary, had been kicked in the testicle five years previously....At the time of operation the testes were the size of olive pits. The patient was tall, thin, anemic, very dull and apathetic....The donor was a negro hanged for murder. The glands were removed...fifteen minutes after death...refrigerated...[and implanted several hours later....] Seven weeks after the operation the doctor reported that the testes were firm and..."resting nicely in the scrotal sac." The patient gained fifteen pounds and had become active and alert — in fact, he was improved in every way — and sexually had become very active....Dr. Stanley said: "He now has erections nightly and in the daytime, something he never had before."
In the "comment" section of his JAMA piece, Lydston noted the cross-racial aspect of Stanley's case. Lydston's fascination with the donor's race and the recipient's improved sex life (in an all-male prison population!) reflected an enduring interest of his. In 1893 he cowrote "Sexual Crimes Among the Southern Negroes — Scientifically Considered," an article calling for the full "Oriental" castration — testes and penis — of any Negro convicted of raping a white woman as the only effective punishment. Clearly, Dr. Lydston spent a lot of time thinking about black genitalia.
Lydston went public about his surgery on himself because, as the 1920s moved along, the most celebrated testicle transplanter in the world became a publicity-seeking, Russian-born surgeon working in Paris named Serge Voronoff. Ever the jingoist, Lydston wanted to remind the world that gland grafting had started in the good old U.S.A., where dozens of surgeons were doing the procedure and promising great results to all comers. That fact was certainly true, but it failed to halt Dr. Voronoff's publicity juggernaut. This wasn't because Voronoff was doing more testicle transplants than anyone else. It was because he didn't bother to use humans as donors.
It is impossible to exaggerate the shock and fascination with which these words were received. Though other surgeons had preceded him, Voronoff instantly became the most famous testicle transplanter of them all. He had not been totally unknown; in France Voronoff had grafted testes tissue from young rams into older ones, after which, he told the press, the recipients showed clear signs of rejuvenation. When asked by a New York Times reporter in 1922 when he would start working with humans, Voronoff said, "Soon." "Grafting can only be done with beings of the same species," the Russian said, "but with men it is a rather difficult situation, as you cannot remove the source of vigor from a young man for the sake of making an old man young." (Clearly, Dr. Lespinasse in Chicago felt differently.) "But it is possible," Voronoff said, "to use monkeys, as they are akin to men." This was not the answer the Timesman was expecting.
"But if you graft a monkey's glands in the body of a man, [won't he] become a monkey?" he asked.
"It would not be the case at all," Voronoff promised.
About that, and not much else, Voronoff was correct. On June 20, 1922, he was again quoted in the Times, saying he had made good on his vows. Voronoff had placed testicle grafts in several men who, afterward, remained totally human but dramatically improved over their previous state, especially sexually. The donors for all these transplants, Voronoff said, were African chimpanzees.
Voronoff had become interested in a possible link between testes and rejuvenation in 1898, while working as a physician in Egypt, where he examined several eunuchs. He was struck by their obesity, hairless faces, and developed breasts. But, most of all, Voronoff was impressed by how old they looked. "The hair grows white at an early age, and it is rare for them to attain old age....Are these disastrous effects directly due to the absence of the testicles?" he later wondered in print. And might not aging in a normal man be attributable to old, weak testes?
Voronoff was certain his subsequent animal experiments proved his Egyptian musings had been prescient. Actually, they proved no such thing, though the blame for that error must be shared with Edouard Retterer, a Parisian pathologist. In France Voronoff had operated a second time on one of his first patients — Old Ram No. 12 — a year after the initial surgery and removed the graft for examination. Because Voronoff was not an experienced microscopist, he turned this tissue over to Retterer, who was. Unfortunately, Retterer mistook the invading cells of the sheep's immune system at the graft site as evidence of the survival of the graft itself.
Once he started operating on humans, Voronoff, as Lespinasse had before him, grafted thin slices of a testicle into the recipient. Unlike Lespinasse, however, Voronoff sutured his monkey tissue directly onto the tunica vaginalis, the thin serum-filled pouch that encases each testis, rather than embedding it in muscle tissue inside the scrotum. Voronoff prepared the tunica for the graft by gently scratching its surface with a sharp surgical instrument. The resulting grooves formed a bed for the monkey graft; equally important, the flow of blood serum out of the scratches, Voronoff believed, nourished the graft and kept it alive. He had raked the tunicae of his rams in his first experiments. The fact that Retterer pronounced those grafts still functioning years later convinced Voronoff his theory was correct.
Rejuvenation by Grafting is a thoroughly compelling document, made all the more so by its unpretentious style. "It is not possible to get the ape onto the table while conscious, as even the gentlest subjects fight desperately [any] attempt to tie their limbs," Voronoff wrote. "They are extremely suspicious and, in order to anaesthetize them, it is necessary to resort to strategy." One of Voronoff's associates designed a strategic cage that closed by means of a double trapdoor.
One shutter of the trapdoor is an open trellis permitting free access of air to the ape, while the second shutter is solid. The latter is lowered just before the cage is saturated with the anaesthetic.
A small window in this "Anaesthetizing Box" enabled Voronoff to see when the ape was dazed. "No time must be lost" at this moment, he warned. The ape "must be got out of the cage and onto the operating table...before he is sufficiently recovered to get his teeth into the hands of those who control him."
Once there, the ape was administered chloroform, after which his four limbs were spread out and tied down. Then an extensive pre-op session began. "Owing to [the ape's] uncleanly habits, meticulous care" was taken to shave the "scrotum, the lower part of the hypogastrium and the upper portions of both thighs; they must be well scrubbed with soap and hot water, washed with plenty of ether or spirit, and carefully painted with tincture of iodine," Voronoff wrote. On a table several feet away, the human recipient was similarly prepared. One assumes he escaped the indignity of the "Anaesthetizing Box" and — it is hoped — required less scrubbing and shaving.
After this, a testicle was removed from the ape by Voronoff's cosurgeon, who cut that testis into two halves, then cut three slices from each half. As this was happening, Voronoff prepared the human recipient, opening his scrotum, and exposing the tunicae vaginalis inside. Voronoff scratched the first tunica, prompting the flow of blood serum. Then he took the three monkey grafts prepared by his cosurgeon and sewed them onto its grooved surface, ensuring that none of the grafts was in contact with another. He then repeated this procedure on the other tunica. All of these steps were demonstrated in Rejuvenation with lifelike illustrations.
Most people, however, learned about Voronoff's operation in the popular press. Several monkey-gland recipients were practiced boulevardiers before the surgery; afterward, newspapers noted approvingly, their success rate as seducers soared even higher. The German humor magazine Simplicissimus ran a cartoon showing Voronoff's operating room crowded with a pregnant woman and dozens of her scrawny children, many with their hands in a supplicant's position, begging the surgeon not to operate on the ape sitting on his operating table, or their father, lying nearby. "Professor, please," the caption began, "wouldn't you rather use a method that prematurely makes our father older?"
Voronoff's operations were soon mimicked in America. Max Thorek, the esteemed physician who later wrote The Human Testis, spent much of the 1920s supplying his patients with slices of monkey testes. He had a small zoo built on the roof of a Chicago hospital to house his donors. One Sunday morning the monkeys escaped, gathering minutes later, for no known reason, at a nearby Catholic church. In his memoirs Thorek declined to describe in print "the sacrilegious actions" of those beasts, witnessed by a packed house of shocked congregants. Strange things with animals were also occurring in rural Kansas. There "Dr." John R. Brinkley got rich grafting goat testes into human patients. Unlike Voronoff and Thorek, however, Brinkley's credentials were highly suspect. In fact, it appears he bought them.
In England Voronoff's procedures inspired a novel called The Gland Stealers, issued by the same house that published P. G. Wodehouse. "Gran'pa is ninety-five, possessed of £100,000, a fertile imagination, and a good physique," the promotional copy on the book jacket began. "He sees in the papers accounts of Professor Voronoff's theory of rejuvenation by means of gland-grafting. Nothing will satisfy him but that the experiment should be made on himself....
He acquires a gorilla, a hefty murderous brute, and the operation is performed with success. That is only the beginning....Inspired to philanthropy by the thrill of regained youth, Gran'pa decides to take a hundred or so old men to Africa, capture a like number of gorillas, and borrow their glands....
In this case fiction reflected fact: Voronoff's operation became so popular that the French government felt compelled to ban monkey hunting in its African colonies.
The press marveled at Voronoff's extravagant lifestyle — the huge hotel suite on the Champs-Elysées, where he lived with his wife and a staff of servants, his holiday home on the Riviera, the fancy cars and parties, etcetera. Voronoff could certainly afford it. He charged $5,000 per surgery, a prodigious sum eighty years ago. By the end of 1926, Voronoff said he had done one thousand of them.
The enduring power of the placebo effect is certainly one reason why Voronoff was so successful. The surgeon's career was also given a boost by the then-burgeoning eugenics movement. Because World War I "destroyed a fit elite and left behind a degenerating, elderly rump," David Hamilton writes in The Monkey Gland Affair, "Voronoff's efforts at rejuvenating the aging wealthy classes was [seen as] a step in the right direction." At the same time, recent advances in plastic surgery and orthopedics led many to believe, as British scientist Julian Huxley did, that "biological knowledge enable[s] us to modify the processes of our bodies more in accord with our wishes." Just about everything was deemed malleable in the hands of the scientist. Why not add man's testes to that list?
Because, in the end, it was proved that Voronoff's operation did not work. One would hope to learn this sorry episode was ended by one of Voronoff's medical peers, after putting Voronoff's claims to rigorous scientific scrutiny. But that was only partly the case. In truth, few medical doctors ever challenged Voronoff's claims. The scientist who finally did prove the futility of Voronoff's testicle grafts was a French veterinarian, working in Morocco, named Henri Velu. In the late 1920s, Velu re-created Voronoff's early experiments on rams. After performing his own testes grafts, Velu removed them months later and examined them himself under a microscope. He concluded, correctly, that the "graft" was really a scar plus some inflammatory cells, the latter a remnant of the "invading force" that had successfully rejected the graft. Testicle grafts, Velu wrote in 1929, are "une grande illusion."
Skepticism regarding Voronoff's work finally began to grow, and Velu's findings were confirmed by subsequent medical advances. After testosterone was isolated in 1935, scientists demonstrated its inability to reverse the aging process or, by itself, to restore potency to a dysfunctional man who was otherwise healthy. In the next decade biologist Peter Medawar's work on the immune system proved that any and all of Voronoff's grafts would have been quickly destroyed by the host. (Professor Medawar was later awarded the Nobel Prize.)
There are conflicting reports of Voronoff's state when he died in 1951, at eighty-five. In Medical Blunders, Robert Youngson and Ian Schott wrote that "Voronoff lived to be ridiculed, but bore it with dignity." But Patrick McGrady, in The Youth Doctors, quoted a Swiss physician who knew the monkey-gland doctor as saying Voronoff was severely depressed near the end. Not because of what happened to him, the Swiss said — because of what may have happened to his patients because of him. Apparently, Voronoff feared that several of his grafts may have transferred syphilis from his apes to his human recipients. Voronoff was horrified by this thought, the Swiss said, and spent much of his final days in depressed isolation because of it. Only one thing is certain: depressed or not, the pioneer in the erection industry named Serge Voronoff died an extremely wealthy man.
Stekel's personal problems with Freud did not lessen his enthusiasm for Freudianism. Stekel insisted that, in the remaining 95 percent of impotence cases, the disease is entirely psychological, caused by self-hatred produced by unresolved Oedipal issues, unconscious fears and anxieties arising from childhood sexual disturbances, and inhibitions reinforced by religion and/or secular morality. The physical power of erection in men is given to them at birth, Stekel wrote, and is "preserved until death."
Stekel's 95 percent figure was soon accepted as fact, though there was no epidemiological evidence to support it. Nor was there any hard data that the talking cure used by psychoanalysis was of any lasting benefit in impotence cases, either. Many of the case reports in the medical literature now seem comical, misogynistic, or both. The following was written by Dr. B. S. Talmey, in the New York Medical Journal.
Mr. X., thirty years of age, was as a young boy regularly taken to the Tyrolean mountains [for his] vacation. When he was fifteen...he lived with his parents near an Alpine dairy where he roamed around among the cows and became quite attached to a pretty, twenty-year-old dairy maid who, on her side, took an erotic fancy to the handsome boy.
One day, while young Mr. X. was sunning himself near the grazing cows,
she joined him and taught him the ars amandi. This she repeated every day as long as the vacation lasted. [Later,] when Mr. X. married, he found that conjunction was possible only if his wife was attired in Tyrolean peasant costume and assumed the same posture as his pretty dairy maid years ago....In the beginning of their married life...the wife granted his requests. The erections were perfectly normal, and two children were born. Lately the wife has rebelled against the masquerade, and Mr. X. found himself completely impotent. In the lupenar where, for a remuneration, anything can be obtained, he has violent erections with a [prostitute] dressed as an Alpine dairy maid.
Dr. Talmey's response was to accuse Mrs. X. of a "sanctimonious frigidity" he said he often found in upper-class wives. Such women think that "assuming the supine position and [a state of] femoral divergence are the only contributions" to intercourse required of them. To help her husband's impotence, Talmey said, Mrs. X. must improve her attitude and don that damn peasant blouse. If not, she was dooming him to more visits to the lupenar, where the outcome would be even more impotence. "Extreme excitement after long abstinence," Talmey wrote, causes serious erectile dysfunction.
The expectancy and joy over the final reaching of the goal causes a great nervous disturbance within the inhibitory center which becomes overexcited, and at the critical moment the erections fail, the penis becomes flaccid, and shrivels to half its normal size.
In 1936 New York urologist Max Huhner had read enough. He challenged Karl Menninger, head of the famous psychoanalytic clinic in Kansas that bore his name, to a debate on impotence therapy in the Journal of Urology. Menninger, who went first, argued that even when interventions such as the cauterization of the prostatic urethra produced the resumption of erectile functioning, they only did so because of their psychological effects. "The patient thinks there is something wrong with his genitalia," Menninger wrote. Urologists "know this is not true, or at least, that the organ pathology is secondary to the psycho-pathology, but experience has taught them the curative value of treating the genitalia locally, and by its suggestive value reassuring the patient and relieving his anxiety and thereby his impotence." The reality of the situation, Menninger said, is that impotence is caused by anxiety, a condition best treated by psychoanalysis. The talking cure made conscious "the unconscious emotions that often (always?) determine the inhibition of sexual functioning." The specific nature of those negative emotions, Menninger wrote, include "fears, especially of punishment or injury; hostility toward the love object; and conflicting loves, particularly parental and homosexual fixations."
Dr. Huhner responded by dismissing psychoanalysis's claim that impotence is psychological in 95 percent of the cases as less a scientific fact than a philosophical assertion. Huhner did not rule out the possibility of psychogenic impotence. He argued that urologists can discern such a patient from one with organic disease because they do a medical examination, something a psychoanalyst never does. What would one think, he asked,
if a patient with an undersized penis complained of his inability to perform the sexual act and consulted a physician who, without even looking at that organ, informed him that his condition was purely psychic and due to some unresolved complex from his childhood days? This certainly seems ridiculous...but it is exactly the procedure that is followed daily by psychoanalysts.
Huhner also wrote that, while he was not "doubting the psychoanalyst's findings" regarding the prevalence of unresolved Oedipal issues in impotent men, he doubted their methodology in asserting it.
Just as in other branches of medical science, a control should be established to determine the possible presence of such an unresolved Oedipal complex in men who are not impotent....In any other branch of medical experimentation, such a system of control would be the obvious rule.
On these two points, Huhner was on solid ground. Unfortunately, he weakened his case, from our viewpoint today, by insisting on the reality of the link between masturbation and impotence, and the efficacy of treating that condition with jolts of electric current to the penis. (It goes without saying, of course, that he was wrong on both counts.) Equally distressing to contemporary eyes is Huhner's qualified endorsement of the "clinical observations of Stanley," the San Quentin prison doctor, "and Voronoff," Mr. Monkey Gland — each of whom, Huhner wrote, had scientifically established the "endocrine action" in erectile physiology.
Both of these operators have had [temporary] success in producing sexual desire and erection in impotent persons....And yet, in the face of all these modern observations on the influence of sex hormone, psychoanalysts still believe that everything sexual comes from the brain, and simply ignore the fact that we have been endowed with sexual organs as well as brains.
The fact that a scientist as serious as Dr. Huhner wrote these words in 1936, several years after the Frenchman Henri Velu proved that testicle grafts were "une grande illusion," is troubling. It is also one more reason why urologists lost the early battle for therapeutic control of erectile functioning to psychotherapists and, for several years after the 1970 publication of Human Sexual Inadequacy, by Dr. William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, to sex therapists. Urologists would not, however, lose the war.
In "Reconstruction of the Male Genitalia," Dr. Frumkin offered an extreme solution to an extreme problem. He removed a section of the patient's rib, then made two parallel incisions into the patient's abdominal wall. The flap of skin between those incisions was pulled up, then curved inward into a tube, in which the rib cartilage was inserted. This "tube flap," with the rib inside, was then sewed shut. The resulting product, Frumkin wrote, resembled "a suitcase handle." After a healing period of several weeks, this handle was carefully removed from the patient's midsection and even more carefully attached to whatever remained of his penis. A new urinary canal, made of scrotum skin, was sewed to the outside of the reconstructed penis, running along the bottom. (Frumkin's article included a photograph of a reconstructed patient urinating into a glass beaker.)
Though it may sound freakish to a nonscientist, it is not surprising that Dr. Frumkin experimented with a rib bone. Most mammals, including many of our primate cousins, are born with a bone in the penis called the baculum or os penis. The "little stick" of the fox was described by Aristotle twenty-four hundred years ago. Much more recently the British zoologist W. R. Bett noted that "in the whale [the baculum] measures 2 metres in length and 40 cm. in circumference at the base, and in the walrus it is 55 cm. long." When male otters fight, they have been known to bite an opponent's penis, snapping the bone inside in two. Anyone desiring more information on this subject would do well to visit the lcelandic Phallological Museum in Reykjavík, where more than eighty penis baculae — from sixteen varieties of land mammals, twelve different whale species, seven types of seal and walrus, and one rogue polar bear — are preserved and displayed on wall plaques.
Because of examples like this from the animal kingdom, the idea of a penile bone implant in humans made some biological sense. Even so, the results were disappointing. Most bent noticeably within eighteen months; later, nearly all were absorbed into the recipient's body. These problems led urologists to experiment with artificial materials. This research would mark the first major step forward in the medicalization of the erection.
In 1948 Dr. Willard E. Goodwin of the University of California at Los Angeles became the first surgeon to use a synthetic substance to make a baculum in a human. He replaced a patient's bent rib cartilage implant with a single rigid acrylic rod. Not long afterward, however, he had to remove it because of complications. In 1973 Drs. Michael P. Small and Hernan M. Carrion of the University of Miami invented the first device made of paired sponge-filled silicone rods. These flexible, semirigid rods were inserted alongside the corpora cavernosa — the two spongy bodies that fill with blood inside a normally functioning penis — and underneath the tunica albuginea, the membrane encasing those bodies. This created a more "natural" appearance than any single-rod implant. Well, maybe "super-natural" is a better term. The Small-Carrion implant did not leave the patient's penis in a constant state of elevation, but it did leave him in a state of perpetual expansion. Some patients, but not all, found this embarrassing.
A solution for that predicament was devised later that same year by F. Brantley Scott of the University of Minnesota, who led a team that created the first inflatable prosthesis. This device, which also used silicone rods, was manipulated up and down by a small pump placed inside the scrotum. Nearly all prostheses in use today are updated versions of Dr. Scott's design, manufactured by American Medical Systems or Mentor, Inc.
Six years before Scott's breakthrough, however, Dr. Robert O. Pearman, a private practitioner in Encino, California, had invented a single-rod silicone implant, which he placed atop and in between the corpora cavernosa and underneath the tunica, a position that caused his patients to complain of pain. Even so, Pearman was a major force in the medicalization of erections — not for his faulty technique, which he soon abandoned, but for the definition of erectile dysfunction he published in the Journal of Urology.
Pearman defined ED as the "loss of ability to produce and maintain a functional erection due to pathology of the nervous or vascular system, or to deformation or loss of the penis." He did not mention psychological causes at all. This declaration encouraged other urologists to believe what they were already seeing with their own eyes. "Anyone doing implants could see the penile tissue of an impotent man was scarred," says Dr. Arnold Melman, coeditor of the International Journal of Impotence Research. "How could you explain that psychologically?"
Another prolific researcher, Dr. Irwin Goldstein of Boston University, pays homage to Pearman as well. But for Goldstein the big breakthrough was made by Scott's inflatable prosthesis. "Finally we had a therapy that produced reliable, lifelike erections. Before we had nothing to offer, so we left the field to psychiatrists." Most doctors are "acceptors," Goldstein says. "If they read impotence is ninety-five per cent psychological, they accept it." Not Goldstein. "My undergraduate training was in engineering. Engineers do not accept things. They take working machines apart and try to make them work better." The subcutaneous pump in Scott's prosthesis was an inspiration to Goldstein and like-minded urologists "It reminded us that the penis is like a tire. An erection must be pumped up — with blood instead of air, of course. And when it goes flat, just like with a tire, you have to look for a leak or check out the pump."
In the 1970s the Czech surgeon Vaclav Michal did autopsies on male diabetics, many of whom were impotent when alive. Nearly all, he discovered, had a pump problem — blocked cavernosal arteries. In "Arterial Disease as a Cause of Impotence," Michal asserted that ED is often the result of this insufficiency. Michal experimented with revascularization procedures on live diabetics to surgically enhance their arterial blood supply, getting good results. In 1978 Dr. Adrian Zorgniotti summoned urologists from Europe and the United States to a conference in New York to discuss Michal's work. "That meeting was a turning point," says Dr. Gorm Wagner of the University of Copenhagen, who was there. "It changed forever the old, erroneous way of thinking of impotence as exclusively a psychogenic problem." Another meeting was held in 1980 in Monaco and, in 1982, in Copenhagen, where participants agreed to exchange scientific information every two years at a World Meeting on Impotence and formalized their organization as the International Society for Impotence Research, the first group of its kind in the world.
In 1981 Michal taught his revascularization procedure to Irwin Goldstein, who became an enthusiastic supporter. Two years later Giles Brindley gave the most startling scientific presentation in medical history — and in so doing not only launched the erection industry but, even more important, helped scientists to finally understand the mysterious hemodynamic process that makes an erection possible.
Virag later tried to duplicate this result in thirty impotent men — awake, this time — and was successful. His paper, published in Lancet, was titled "Intracavernous Injection of Papaverine for Erectile Failure." Brindley bared his results in Las Vegas the following spring. Later Brindley would publish "Pilot Experiments on the Actions of Drugs Injected into the Human Corpora Cavernosum Penis." This paper reported on thirty-three injections resulting in erections lasting between several seconds and forty-four hours. A close reading reveals that Brindley did all the experiments on himself.
Before Virag's and Brindley's experiments, the picture urologists had of erectile functioning was still a little fuzzy. "There was a taboo against studying male sexual biology in detail," Goldstein says. "If you studied the heart everyone applauded. But the penis? People thought you were a pervert." Still, urologists had poked around enough to know most of the basics. They knew, for instance, that neurological signals caused the organ to fill with blood. They knew about the cavernosal arteries bringing that blood in and the smaller arterioles branching out into the surrounding corpora cavernosa, the two spongy bodies that expanded once the blood got there. They knew the corpora were composed of smooth-muscle tissue, thin sheets that line blood vessels and most of the hollow organs of the body. Inside the corpora they saw this smooth muscle formed a meshwork of linked spaces called sinusoids. They also knew the corpora were encased by a thin but tough membrane called the tunica albuginea.
What they did not really understand was the most important event in the process — the mechanism that enabled the penis to trap the blood once it came surging in. Virag's and Brindley's experiments confirmed what some scientists already suspected: the importance of smooth-muscle relaxation. Papaverine, which Virag used, and phenoxybenzamine, the drug injected by Brindley in Las Vegas, were both powerful smooth-muscle relaxants. When injected in the penis, each mimicked the body's own erectile methodology and thus gave urologists a view — a pharmacological magnifying glass — into the penis's inner workings.
"We learned that what we learned in medical school [about blood trapping] was wrong," says Dr. Arthur L. Burnett of Johns Hopkins. And had been for a long time. In 1900 a German anatomist named Von Ebner found what he called "pads" lining the arteries bringing blood into the penis. He concluded that those pads enabled the arteries by themselves to regulate blood flow into the penis — opening up to allow blood in and closing down later to trap that blood and cause an erection. Von Ebner's theory was the prevailing wisdom until 1952, when it was updated by a French urologist named Conti, who said he found shunts, soon called "Conti's polsters," in veins outside the tunica albuginea that carried blood out of the corpora. Conti concluded that these were the mysterious shutdown valves urologists had been searching for for so long. Blood entered the penis, the corpora expanded, and those polsters outside the tunica closed down, Conti said, giving that blood nowhere to go. Result: erection.
Papaverine proved this was not the case at all. "We saw that the key to the trapping of blood is the rapid relaxation of the smooth-muscle tissue in the corpora," Burnett says. "Once that tissue is relaxed, the resistance to blood flowing in is greatly reduced. So the blood comes in, the corpora suck it up like two thirsty sponges, and the tissue expands so quickly that it flattens the exit veins against the tunica."
Those exit veins inside the penis are there for a reason: an erection is not supposed to be a permanent event. It is through those veins that blood leaves the corpora — after an orgasm, or when a man loses his erection because the telephone on the nightstand starts ringing. That second example of shrinkage occurs because the ringing startles the man, which triggers the release of epinephrine, a smooth-muscle constrictor that causes tissue to tighten. That reaction sends the blood through the suddenly no-longer-flattened exit veins and down the drain, as it were. This is part of the "fight or flight" response sometimes known as an adrenaline rush. It is sexually counterproductive by evolutionary design. All men today are descended from cavemen who successfully got away from a saber-toothed tiger precisely because they were not impeded by an erection. Those who could not lose their erection fast enough were caught and eaten.
When there is smooth-muscle relaxation — and no saber-toothed tiger — "the blood that has just entered the penis is trapped, so pressure inside builds by a factor of about ten," Burnett says. Urologists call this process "venous occlusion." We call it getting hard. It doesn't take much blood: less than two ounces, says Dr. James H. Barada, treasurer of the Society for the Study of Impotence. But that is enough to make the typical human penis — roughly three and a half inches long and one and a quarter inch thick when flaccid — get two inches longer and more than a half inch thicker, boosting its total volume by around 300 percent. That expansion and rigidity is the difference between a penis with some extra blood, called "tumescent" by urologists, and a bona fide erection. The problem with many impotent men is not that blood is failing to enter the penis; it is that, because the smooth-muscle tissue has not relaxed properly, that blood is draining out immediately after getting there.
Within days of Brindley's demonstration in Las Vegas (and months of Virag's article in Lancet), urologists all over the world were prescribing injection therapy. Papaverine, Virag's drug of choice, was preferred over Brindley's phenoxybenzamine because the latter was shown to be carcinogenic and often caused priapism — an utterly unfunny condition marked by an erection lasting four hours or more, which can do permanent damage to penile tissue. Reached on the telephone in London, Brindley said that he had suffered "no negative consequences" from his injection experiments in the 1980s, which numbered, he said, "in the hundreds." But then he added: "Well, that's not quite true. I do have a small case of Peyronie's disease," a curvature of the penis, caused by internal scarring, that can cause impotence. "I don't think my experiments are the reason," said Brindley, now professor emeritus of physiology at the University of London. "But who knows?"
Papaverine occasionally causes priapism, too, so urologists experimented with other smooth-muscle relaxants such as prostaglandin E-1, or a mix of papaverine, prostaglandin E-1, and phentolamine as their injection drugs of choice. None of these substances was FDA-approved for use as a medication for ED. They were, however, approved for other uses in the human body, so few doctors were hesitant to prescribe them. This off-label use, as it is known, is common medical practice. In 1995 Pharmacia & Upjohn received FDA approval for the first drug specifically approved for impotence — Caverject, a synthetic form of prostaglandin E-1, injected into the corpora cavernosa. Two years later Vivus received approval for the same medication delivered by a transurethral pellet. In 1998 both would lose market share to Viagra.
Approved or not, those first-generation erection drugs certainly worked — in some ways far better than original equipment. A penis injected with a smooth-muscle relaxant could stay hard for hours and remain hard after orgasm, a lure some men found irresistible. Glossy magazines reported on a black market for the drug in Hollywood, where it became a favorite of aging producers "forced" to entertain young starlets. "Girls love the shot," Dr. Uri Peles, a Beverly Hills ED specialist, told me at the 1996 World Meeting on Impotence. "They might not want a hard man, but they want a man hard." What seems funny can, and occasionally has, turned tragic. According to Dr. Goldstein, several Hollywood types have come to his Boston office with serious pathology. "One patient was having an affair with a younger woman. He was perfectly healthy but wanted a little 'performance enhancer.' He injected himself with forty micrograms of prostaglandin — a proper dose for a man with impotence, but about four times higher than anything he might have easily tolerated." The result, Goldstein said, was "a forty-eight-hour erection. That's like having a tourniquet on down there."
After Brindley and Virag, urologists not only began prescribing smooth-muscle relaxants for at-home use, but injecting them in a hospital or consulting-room setting for research purposes. If medical remedies such as drugs and surgery were the primary products of the new erection industry, the secondary products were expensive tests designed to find the vascular problems requiring those remedies. For much of the 1990s, urologists routinely gauged their patients' erectile functioning by injecting their penises with smooth-muscle relaxants, then measuring the arterial blood flow via ultrasonography, a method that sends sound waves into the chemically erected penis and then converts the returning sound waves into an electronic image on a monitor. If the flow after an injection is low, the doctors said, it indicated an arterial-supply problem that possibly required surgery.
Another, even more extensive and expensive, test is called dynamic infusion cavernosometry and cavernosography — or DICC (pronounced "dick"), for short. Irwin Goldstein, a champion of this procedure, told me, "Just like with a tire, you can't always find the leak when it's flat. You have to inflate it and put it under water. We inflate the penis with drugs, then we do our version of the water test."
In the first part of a DICC study, Goldstein records the blood-pressure response inside the corpora after the injection of smooth-muscle relaxers. The goal is to see how closely that penile pressure approaches the mean pressure of an artery in the patient's arm. Next he tests the patient's blood-trapping mechanism by injecting saline solution into the corpora until the patient's penis reaches a defined pressure. Goldstein then charts how fast the erection pressure drops after the infusion is stopped. In a normal man, the saline flow needed to maintain pressure, and the resulting pressure drop after the flow is terminated, are both small. In a man with ED they are quite large. In the third phase of the DICC study, ultrasound charts the blood pressure of the penile arteries. Finally, an X-ray is taken of the erect penis, providing the physician with additional anatomical data.
By the late 1990s, however, there was a feeling such tests were neither essential nor very accurate. "I haven't done a DICC in years," says Dr. Barada. "They make some sense
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