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A stimulating book on hormones

Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just about Everything book cover
Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just about Everything book cover

In 1902, two English physiologists, William Bayliss and Ernest Starling, undertook gruesome experiments on a dog to prove that hormones are essential to canine digestion. As Randi Hutter Epstein, MD ’90, MPH, recounts in her new book, those experiments confirmed that the glands scattered in the body—whether canine or human—have something in common: they produce hormones. The field of endocrinology was born.

The next year, animal rights activists watched Bayliss and Starling cut into a dog’s throat at a demo for medical students. Epstein tells how anti-vivisectionists protested the dog’s treatment and erected a statue of a canine in South London that read, “In Memory of the Brown Terrier Dog Done to Death.” Medical students, in turn, mobbed the streets, shouting, “Down with the Brown Dog!”

This interweaving of science and story is characteristic of Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just about Everything. While tracing the history of endocrinology, Epstein includes accounts of hucksters, eugenicists, and murderers. She writes about how hormones affect those going through menopause, are intersex, are gender transitioning, or experiencing fluctuations in weight.

Epstein hopes these tales will attract a broad audience. “I’m trying to hook in the reader who would say, ‘I never thought I’d read a book about the history of medicine—and I don’t know a thing about chemistry—but I really understand it, because the stories are so great.’ ”

One such story: In 1960, when a doctor predicted that 7-year-old Jeff Balaban “might never make it past four feet,” his mother took action: she recruited pathologists to donate 156 human pituitary glands from cadavers each year to supply growth hormone for Jeff. As Epstein writes, “It would take a graveyard of bodies to make him grow.” Balaban proved lucky; since 1985, more than 226 other people treated with glands obtained from cadavers have died from iatrogenic Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (iCJD) which is transmitted by prion-contaminated growth hormone. Physicians now use synthetic growth hormone.

One of Epstein’s favorite stories is that of Rosalyn Sussman Yalow. Born in 1921 to Jewish immigrants, she found a spot in physics graduate school only after male students left for the military. “They had to go to war so I could get a PhD,” Yalow declared. In 1959, she and colleague Solomon Berson developed a way to measure hormones in the body. The radioimmunoassay (RIA) detects hormones down to one-billionth of a gram per milliliter of blood. As Epstein writes, “That’s like being able to measure the extra water in a swimming pool after one swimmer sheds a tear.” RIA can detect various biological substances and is fundamental to fertility treatments and detecting HIV. Pediatricians have used RIA to virtually eliminate the thyroid deficit that causes congenital hypothyroidism; they routinely prick the heels of newborns to spot the deficiency.

Epstein describes the barriers that Yalow had to breach. She ignored a rule at the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital requiring pregnant women to resign in the fifth month. Journals repeatedly rejected her first groundbreaking article. In an interview, Epstein described Yalow’s advice to a group of third-graders: “ ‘Hold onto all your rejection letters, because you can display them during your Nobel awards ceremony.’ Which Yalow did.” She received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1977 for inaugurating “a new era of endocrinology.”

Epstein said that during five years of researching and writing the book, she saw a pattern in how people have responded to discoveries about hormones. “Here are these chemicals that seem to control us, and we ask, ‘How can we control them?’ That’s human nature. We learn something about health or wellness or disease, and then we want to take control.”