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Serge Voronoff

Birthdate: (85)
Death: September 3, 1951 (85)
Immediate Family:

Husband of Fannie Bostwick

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Serge Voronoff

Serge Abrahamovitch Voronoff (Russian: Сергей Абрамович Воронов; c. July 10, 1866 – September 3, 1951) 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. Other doctors, and the public at large, quickly distanced themselves from Voronoff, pretending they had never had any interest in the grafting techniques. By the time of his death in 1951 at the age of 85, few newspapers noted his passing, and those that did acted as if Voronoff had always been ridiculed for his beliefs. In 1999, some speculated that the AIDS virus discovered in the 1980s entered the human population through Voronoff's transfer of monkey parts into humans in the 1920s. Presently, however, his efforts and reputation have been somewhat rehabilitated.

Early life

Serge (Samuel) Voronoff was born in Subbotnik family in a village close to Voronezh in Russia shortly before July 10, 1866, the date of his circumcision in a synagogue. He emigrated to France at the age of 18, 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.

Monkey-gland transplant work

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.

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 sufferers of "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, 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, and the aging President of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. 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.

Falling out of favour

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

In his book The Monkey Gland Affair, David Hamilton, an experienced transplant surgeon, discusses how animal tissue inserted into a human would not be absorbed, but instantly rejected. At best, it would result in scar tissue, which might fool a person into believing the graft is still in place. Interestingly, this means the many patients who received the surgery and praised Voronoff were "improved" solely by the placebo effect.

Part of the basis of Voronoff's work was that testicles are glands, much like the thyroid and adrenal glands. Voronoff believed that at some point, scientists would discover what substance the testicular glands secrete, making grafting surgery unnecessary.

Eventually, it was determined that the substance emitted by the testicles is testosterone. Voronoff expected that this new discovery would prove his theories. Testosterone would be injected into animals and they would grow young, strong, and virile. Experiments were performed, and this was not the case. Besides an increase in some secondary sexual characteristics, testosterone injections did little. Testosterone did not prolong life, as Voronoff expected. In the 1940s, Dr. Kenneth Walker, an eminent British surgeon, dismissed Voronoff's treatment as "no better than the methods of witches and magicians."

In the 1940s, his treatment was widely used by football players at Wolverhampton Wanderers and Portsmouth, although it eventually fell out of favor.

Death and burial

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.

As Voronoff was no longer respected, few newspapers ran obituaries, and those that did acted as if Voronoff had always been ridiculed for his beliefs. For example, The New York Times, once one of his supporters, spelt his name incorrectly and stated that "few took his claims seriously".

Voronoff is buried in the Russian section of the Caucade Cemetery in Nice.

Reputation and legacy

In the 1990s, Voronoff's negative reputation was softened. In November 1991, one of the oldest peer-reviewed medical journals in the world, The Lancet, suggested that the file on Voronoff's work be reopened and in particular that "the Medical Research Council should fund further studies on monkey glands." By 1994, there were calls for a qualified apology from the orthodox medical establishment for dismissing Voronoff's work. In particular, since modern medicine has established that the Sertoli cells of the testes constitute a barrier to the immune system, rendering the testes an immunologically privileged site for the transplantation of foreign tissue, the thin slices of monkey testicles Voronoff implanted into the patient's testicles may in theory have survived to produce some benefit. There have recently been successful experiments reducing insulin requirements in diabetics by implanting into them pancreatic islet cells from pigs coated in Sertoli cells to insulate them from attack by the immune system. No immunosuppressive drugs were required. In 1998, the sweeping popularity of Viagra brought forth references to Voronoff. However, in 1999, some speculated that the AIDS virus discovered in the 1980s entered the human population through Voronoff's transfer of monkey parts into humans in the 1920s.

By 2003, Voronoff's efforts in the 1920s reached trivia factoid status for newspapers. However, as recently as 2005, Voronoff's work in the 1920s and 1930s was noted for setting the basis for the modern anti-aging strategy of replacing hormones—the internally secreted substances that decline with age—to regain the vitality and physical attributes associated with youth. Such practices are currently advocated by alternative medicine organizations such as the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.

Popular culture

As Voronoff's work became famous in the 1920s, it began to be featured in popular culture. The song "Monkey-Doodle-Doo", written by Irving Berlin and featured in the Marx Brothers film The Coconuts, contains the line: "If you're too old for dancing/Get yourself a monkey gland". Strange-looking ashtrays depicting monkeys protecting their private parts, with the phrase (translated from French) "No, Voronoff, you won't get me!" painted on them began showing up in Parisian homes. At about this same time, a new cocktail containing gin, orange juice, grenadine and absinthe was named The Monkey Gland.

Voronoff was the prototype for Professor Preobrazhensky in Mikhail Bulgakov's novel Heart of a Dog, published in 1925. In the novel, Preobrazhensky implants human testicles and pituitary gland into a stray dog named Sharik. Sharik then proceeds to become more and more human as time passes, picks himself the name Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov, makes himself a career with the "department of the clearing of the city from cats and other vile animals", and turns the life in the professor's house into a nightmare until the professor reverses the procedure.

The Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Creeping Man seems to have been inspired by Voronoff's work. Written in 1923 but set in 1903, it is about a distinguished, elderly, Cambridge Professor who experiences bizarre side-effects after secretly taking a drug, derived in an unspecified manner from monkeys, in order to produce rejuvenation.

Personal life

Voronoff married his first wife, Marguerite Barbe, in 1897; she died in 1910. His second wife was Evelyn Bostwick, a wealthy New York socialite and the daughter of Jabez Bostwick—they married in 1920 (Bostwick's daughter from a previous marriage was Betty Carstairs). Evelyn translated into English Voronoff's book Life: a means of restoring vital energy and prolinging life. 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.

Works by Voronoff

Voronoff, Serge. (1920) Life: A Study of the Means of Restoring. Publisher: E. P. Dutton & Company, New York. ASIN B000MX31EC

Voronoff, Serge. (1923) Greffes Testiculaires. Publisher: Librairie Octave Doin. ASIN B000JOOIA0

Voronoff, Serge. (1924) Quarante-Trois Greffes Du Singe a L'homme. Publisher: Doin Octave. ASIN B000HZVQUQ

Voronoff, Serge. (1925) Rejuvenation by grafting. Publisher: Adelphi. Translation edited by Fred. F. Imianitoff. ASIN B000OSQH5K

Voronoff, Serge. (1926) Etude sur la Vieillesse et la Rajeunissement par la Greffe. Publisher: Arodan, Colombes, France. ASIN B000MWZJHU

Voronoff, Serge. (1926) The study of old age and my method of rejuvenation. Publisher: Gill Pub. Co. ASIN B000873F7A

Voronoff, Serge. (1928) How to restore youth and live longer. Publisher: Falstaff Press. ASIN B000881RLU

Voronoff, Serge. (1928) The conquest of life. Publisher: Brentano's. ASIN B000862P0E

Voronoff, Serge. (1930) Testicular grafting from ape to man: Operative technique, physiological manifestations, histological evolutions, statistics. Publisher: Brentano's. ASIN B00088JAL4

Voronoff, Serge. (1933) Les sources de la vie. Publisher: Fasquelle editeur. ASIN B000K5XTTO

Voronoff, Serge. (1933) The Conquest of Life. Publisher: Brentano's. ASIN B000862P0E

Voronoff, Serge. (1937) Love and thought in animals and men. Publisher: Methuen. ASIN B000HH293C

Voronoff, Serge. (1941) From Cretin to Genius. Publisher: Alliance. ASIN B000FX4UP8

Voronoff, Serge. (1943) The Sources of Life. Publisher: Boston, Bruce Humphries. ASIN B000NV3MZ6

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Serge Voronoff's Timeline

July 10, 1866
September 3, 1951
Age 85