ISSN 1470-3947 (print) | ISSN 1479-6848 (online)

Endocrine Abstracts (2017) 49 P1 | DOI: 10.1530/endoabs.49.P1

The fantastical world of hormones

John Wass


We all know that endocrinology is the most amazing specialty. However although some of the discoveries in the last 3–400 years have been amazing, some of the wrong turns have exhibited opportunism and quackery. Perhaps we should start with testosterone and the effects of castration. We know that removal of the testes before puberty has irreversible affects and that in 16th and 17th centuries these were exploited for music. Popes did not come out of this covered in glory and the last papal castrato was singing in the Sistine Chapel choir in the early 1900s. In the late 1840s Berthold a German physiologist in Göttingen experimented on capons showing that if he removed their testes and transplanted them into the abdomen, where they regained their blood supply, the effects of castration were not seen. He did not recognize the importance of his observation. Later in the late 1880s Brown-Séquard, the famous French neurologist, reported at the French Royal Society injecting himself with a mixture of the bloods from the testes of dogs and guinea pigs. His reported marked improvement in strength and stamina was a placebo effect because of the shorter half-life of testosterone. Thyroxine from sheep given to patients with hypothyroidism, again in the late 1880s had a remarkable effect in women with hypothyroidism because of the longer half-life of thyroxine. In the late 1880s the ovary was thought to be part of the nervous system. Oophorectomy at that time was used to treat conditions in women including hysteria and anorexia and anxiety and even nymphomania. Ernest Starling was the first person to coin the term ‘hormone’ and ‘Ormao’ is the Greek word to ‘excite or stir up’. This was the founding of endocrinology. We have then gone from strength to strength with the discovery of insulin and more recent leptin, pioneered amongst others by Steve O’Rahilly and Sadaf Farooqi in Cambridge.

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