A tour of the history of endocrinology, highlighting progress but also the hype that has promoted the curative abilities of hormones.
Epstein (Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank, 2010), who has a medical degree and masters of public health, explores the long-held beliefs in the power of glandular “juices,” but she credits two British researchers at the dawn of the 20th century as the founders of the science of endocrinology. Their canine experiments showed that a chemical released by the pancreas aids digestion without the involvement of the nervous system. By 1905, the word hormone had been coined, and the science took off. In successive chapters the author highlights selected hormones, but not before she introduces the “Fat Bride,” a 517-pound sideshow star who, along with giants and bearded ladies, is now considered a victim of hormones gone awry. Epstein devotes a chapter to Harvey Cushing, the brain surgeon who described the hormones secreted by the pituitary gland that also stimulate secretions of other glands. By the 1920s, hormones were touted as being responsible for emotions and behaviors. The ’20s also saw the launch of a long fad for vasectomies, touted as the sure cure for declining libido and other aging male ills. Later chapters also deal with sexual themes. At one time, it was decided that babies born with ambiguous sexual organs should be assigned either a male or female sex designation and have corrective surgery in the first year of life. This is wrong, given current understanding of the complexity of sex determinants; Epstein makes this clear in a sensitive chapter on trans individuals. As for the sex hormones themselves, the hype continues. Not so long ago, estrogen was the dream hormone that would cure hot flashes and ward off heart disease and Alzheimer’s. It’s true for hot flashes, but forget the rest. As for the virtues of testosterone, the hype goes on.
A fine, poignant survey of “what makes us human, from the inside out.”