On 1 June 1889, renowned neurologist Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard shocked his colleagues. Speaking at the Paris Society of Biology, the 72-year-old announced that a slurry made from the ground testicles of guinea pigs and dogs (injected under his skin ten times in three weeks) made him stronger. He also noted that his “jet of urine” lengthened by 25%.
Brown-Séquard was ridiculed by his peers throughout Europe for disseminating results with no scientific basis and promoting quack youth-enhancing ‘cures’. Yet the bizarre elixir found favor with members of the public in the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe — at least among men eager to recapture youthful sexual prowess. As the engaging book Testosterone explains, Brown-Séquard’s testimonial helped to shape future studies that linked the hormone to alleged ‘manliness’.
Anthropologist Katrina Karkazis and sociomedical scientist Rebecca Jordan-Young did not write Testosterone to rehash familiar tales of wacky hormone experiments of yore, although this is one of a few that they include. Their contention is that many testosterone researchers — then and now, and intentionally or not — interpret data with blinkers on. When the facts do not fit the paradigm, the authors argue, findings are molded into flawed dogma. Karkazis and Jordan-Young strive to comprehend how scientific practice around testosterone unfolds, and explore how the results “circulate and morph in the world”.
Today, the biochemistry of this steroid hormone is well known, from its daily fluctuations to its synthesis from cholesterol and occasional conversion to oestradiol, a form of oestrogen. Testosterone is known to restore sex drive and muscle tone among men with ailments that reduce levels of the hormone, such as pituitary tumors. During puberty, a surge of testosterone in young men typically leads to enlargement of the muscles, penis, testes and prostate gland, and the emergence of secondary sex characteristics. In women, testosterone excreted by the adrenal glands and ovaries is generally important for ovarian function and bone strength.