A History of Life-Extensionism
In The Twentieth Century
ILIA STAMBLER, PHD
Copyright © 2014 Ilia Stambler
All rights reserved.
I thank and dedicate this work to my parents – Samuel and Victoria-Chaya Stambler – may they live long, and grandparents – Israel and Rosa Beigel-Dachis and Zalman and Sarah Stambler-Prosmushkin – I wish they have lived longer.
Chapter 4. The United States: In the name of capitalism, religion and eugenics – commercial enterprise, basic research and the struggle for funding. The United Kingdom: philosophical and scientific discussions on life-extension, for and against
I would like to express my gratitude to the distinguished scholars for their kindly encouraging and constructive comments and help at different stages of this work:
Dr. Oren Harman, Dr. Jeffrey Perl, Dr. Noah Efron, Dr. Raz Chen-Morris, Dr. Aubrey de Grey,
Dr. James Hughes, Dr. Stanley Shostak, Dr. Alexey Olovnikov, Dr. Alexander Khokhlov,
Dr. Vera Gorbunova, Dr. Vadim Fraifeld, Dr. Natasha Vita-More, Dr. Alfred Tauber, Dr. Michael Gates,
Dr. Edna Rosenthal, Dr. Reuven Tirosh, Dr. Etienne Lepicard, Dr. Elena Afrimzon,
Dr. Aden Bar-Tura, and Dr. David Blokh.
I thank my comrades from life-extensionist organizations around the world for their personal support and their support of the cause of healthy longevity for all.
Please quote this work as:
Ilia Stambler, A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century, PhD Dissertation, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel, 2014.
Ilia Stambler, A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century, Longevity History, Rison Lezion, Israel,
For more information, please visit www.longevityhistory.com
Title Image: Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), “St. George killing the Dragon”.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
This work explores the history of life-extensionism in the 20th century. The term life-extensionism is meant to describe an ideological system professing that radical life extension (far beyond the present life expectancy) is desirable on ethical grounds and is possible to achieve through conscious scientific efforts. This work examines major lines of life-extensionist thought, in chronological order, over the course of the 20th century, while focusing on central seminal works representative of each trend and period, by such authors as Elie Metchnikoff, Bernard Shaw, Alexis Carrel, Alexander Bogomolets and others. Their works are considered in their social and intellectual context, as parts of a larger contemporary social and ideological discourse, associated with major political upheavals and social and economic patterns. The following national contexts are considered: France (Chapter One), Germany, Austria, Romania and Switzerland (Chapter Two), Russia (Chapter Three), the US and UK (Chapter Four).
This work pursues three major aims. The first is to attempt to identify and trace throughout the century several generic biomedical methods whose development or applications were associated with radical hopes for life-extension. Beyond mere hopefulness, this work argues, the desire to radically prolong human life often constituted a formidable, though hardly ever acknowledged, motivation for biomedical research and discovery. It will be shown that novel fields of biomedical science often had their origin in far-reaching pursuits of radical life extension. The dynamic dichotomy between reductionist and holistic methods will be emphasized.
The second goal is to investigate the ideological and socio-economic backgrounds of the proponents of radical life extension, in order to determine how ideology and economic conditions motivated the life-extensionists and how it affected the science they pursued. For that purpose, the biographies and key writings of several prominent longevity advocates are studied. Their specific ideological premises (attitudes toward religion and progress, pessimism or optimism regarding human perfectibility, and ethical imperatives) as well as their socioeconomic conditions (the ability to conduct and disseminate research in a specific social or economic milieu) are examined in an attempt to find out what conditions have encouraged or discouraged life-extensionist thought. This research argues for the inherent adjustability of life-extensionism, as a particular form of scientific enterprise, to particular prevalent state ideologies.
The third, more general, aim is to collect a broad register of life-extensionist works, and, based on that register, to establish common traits and goals definitive of life-extensionism, such as valuation of life and constancy, despite all the diversity of methods and ideologies professed. This work will contribute to the understanding of extreme expectations associated with biomedical progress that have been scarcely investigated by biomedical history.
Summary – Introduction
The current study explores the history of life-extensionism in the 20th century, with a primary focus on the first half of the century. The term life-extensionism is meant to describe an ideological system professing that radical life prolongation (far beyond the present life expectancy) is desirable on ethical grounds and is possible to achieve through conscious scientific efforts. Champions of the life-extensionist intellectual movement extrapolated on contemporary scientific and technological achievements and perceived human progress to be unlimited, capable of radically extending the human life-span. Seminal biological developments – such as Jacques and Leo Loeb’s and Alexis Carrel’s concepts of potential cell immortality, Elie Metchnikoff’s theory of phagocytosis or Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard and Eugen Steinach’s hormone replacement therapies – inspired far reaching popular expectations of radical longevity, even of a salvation by biomedical science. In fact, the desire to radically prolong human life often constituted a formidable, though hardly ever acknowledged, motivation for biomedical research and discovery. It will be shown that novel fields of biomedical science often had their origin in far-reaching pursuits of radical life extension. Thus, the development of endocrinology owed much to Eugen Steinach’s “endocrine rejuvenation” operations (c. 1910s-1920s). Probiotic diets originated in Elie Metchnikoff’s conception of radically prolonged “orthobiosis” (c. 1900). The world’s first institute for blood transfusion was established by Alexander Bogdanov to find rejuvenating means (1926). Systemic immunotherapy derived from Alexander Bogomolets’ “life-extending anti-reticular cytotoxic serum” (1930s). And cell therapy (and particularly human embryonic cell therapy) was conducted by Paul Niehans for the purposes of rejuvenation as early as the 1930s. Thus the pursuit of life-extension has constituted an inseparable and crucial element in the history of biomedicine.
And yet despite this broad significance for the history of biomedicine, the subject has until now been marginalized and there have been relatively few attempts to research the history of life-extensionism and its underlying ideological and social motives.[i] The present research aims to redress this historiographic gap and to examine the major lines of life-extensionist scientific and philosophical thought, in chronological order, over the course of the 20th century. Seminal works in the field are considered in their social and intellectual context, as parts of a larger contemporary social discourse, associated with political upheavals and social and economic events, with state ideologies and cultural fashions.
This work pursues three major aims. The first is to attempt to identify and trace throughout the century several generic biomedical methods whose development or application, were associated with hopes for life-extension. In other words, this work inquires what kinds of biomedical interventions (actual or potential) raised the expectations of radical life-extension enthusiasts over the years. There exists an extensive number of sources containing suggestions for possible methods of life prolongation, written by leading scientists and science popularizers, which when studied carefully reveal a taxonomy: idealistic/holistic/hygienic approaches emphasized the importance of psychological environment and hygienic regulation of behavior, whereas, on the other hand, materialistic/reductionist/therapeutic methodologies sought ways to eliminate damaging agents, to introduce biological replacements, to maintain homeostasis, and to bring about man-machine synergy. The apparent relative weight of each method in public discourse (in terms of notoriety and prestige, funding, amount and dissemination of relevant publications) will be shown to change with time, reflecting the initial hopes, disappointments and reactions to those disappointments in a variety of scientific programs.
The second goal is to investigate the ideological and socio-economic backgrounds of the proponents of radical life extension, in order to determine how ideology and social conditions motivated the life-extensionists and how this affected the science they pursued. Their specific ideological premises (attitudes toward religion and progress, pessimism or optimism regarding human perfectibility, ethical imperatives, adjustments to prevalent state ideologies) as well as their socioeconomic conditions (the ability to conduct and disseminate research in a specific social or economic milieu) will be examined in an attempt to find out what conditions have encouraged or discouraged life-extensionist thought.
The third goal is to attempt to find common defining characteristics of life-extensionism in spite of all the diversity of the professed methods and socio-ideological backgrounds. This will be done partly through examining shared traits among the varied forms of life-extensionism and partly through examining the relation of life-extensionism to general biomedical research and practice. Despite the wide variety, what seems to unify the diverse life-extension advocates is an assertion of the unconditional value of human life, unmitigated optimism and belief in progress, perceived as reaching a long-lasting social and biological equilibrium, and a striving toward the absolute goal of maximal life prolongation for as many people as possible, or at least for the proponents themselves or for the groups to which they felt belonging. This desire was neither trivial nor self-explanatory, and was commonly frustrated. Its very expression required a certain daring on the part of life-extensionist writers. In the present work, the open expression of this desire is what defines adherence to “life-extensionism” or the “life-extensionist movement.”
The precise definition of “life-extensionism” or “the life-extensionist movement” is difficult to articulate. The term “life-extensionism” is relatively recent (its precise origins are uncertain).[ii] But of course the terms “life-extension” (or “prolongation of life” in early texts) or “rejuvenation” are very old.[iii] The prolongation of life and rejuvenation were pursued by alchemy[iv] and gerocomia[v] in the Middle Ages, and by experimental gerontology[vi] and anti-aging medicine[vii] in our time. Obviously they are not the same. In the second half of the 20th century, the advocates of life-extension were alternatively called prolongevitists,[viii] life-extensionists, immortalists[ix] or transhumanists,[x] and did not seem to have an agreed title before that. How then can “life-extensionism” or the “life-extensionist movement” be defined in a way which is not “Whig-historical” – imposing contemporary terms on earlier phenomena? The current study proposes to use the term “life-extensionist” generally to designate “proponents of life-extension” and then to seek various and often conflicting ways in which this common and definitive aspiration was expressed in particular historical contexts.
Well into the late 1930s there appeared to be no common organizational affiliation of the seekers of life-extension whatsoever. In that early period, a wide variety of thinkers joined the quest: materialists and idealists, scientists and men of letters, socialists and conservatives. The research was multi-focal and multi-lingual. The proponents of life extension constituted a congeries rather than a synthetic entity. And even now, the advocates of life-extension are very loosely and disparately affiliated, if they are affiliated at all. Still, I would suggest that they constituted a movement, that is to say an intellectual movement defined by a common aspiration. The model is that of other intellectual movements, such as the “Romantic Movement,” the “Enlightenment Movement,” or the “Feminist movement,” having no clear organizational affiliations, but expressing similar aims. As in the latter cases, the writings of the proponents of the life-extensionist intellectual movement show an intricate dialogue and inter-textual influence, cross-fertilization and mutual encouragement. Moreover, the authors expressed an almost universal yearning for a broader cooperation and massive public support. No such broad cooperation and support seem to have occurred until the late 1930s in any of the countries under consideration, yet the striving for their establishment constituted a common ground which may have eventually led to the actual institutional cooperation.
Still, essentially, in the first half of the century, the model of this intellectual movement was “top down”: After the publication of works by elite scientists and philosophers, some of their suggestions became adopted or propagandized by the public, or left at the top level – a subject of a learned and restricted discourse. A laboratory here, a club there, the movement could hardly claim any massive affiliated membership. The proponents had very clear and similar objectives and moral imperatives, yet they enjoined an almost endless variety of methods: theories of aging counting by the dozens and rejuvenating nostrums by the hundreds. As will be exemplified, the proponents also diverged dramatically in their political philosophies, each in line with the native dominant socio-political paradigm in which the proponents were most closely integrated. Several central figures and general trends will be here delineated. Yet, despite all this diversity, the expressed common aspiration allows one to see its proponents as belonging to a “movement.”
The very notion of a “pursuit of life-extension” also requires qualifications. It might be safe to assume that few people in the world would oppose healthy life extension per se (though some authors have expressed such opposing statements). The universal drive of medicine to prolong human life for some periods of time is also generally implied. How then can “life-extensionism” be distinguished as an intellectual movement apart from the aspirations of the whole of medicine or the whole of humanity? The difference may just consist in the extent of hopes, the openness with which such hopes were expressed, and the amount of effort directed toward their fulfillment. When the hopes are high and openly expressed, and the effort toward their implementation is great, the protagonist may be described as a “life-extensionist.” In this sense, aspirations for life-extension for very limited periods of time, as for example in terminal cases, would not be subsumed under the heading of “life-extensionism” (though these are highly compatible with life-extensionist goals, representing, so to say, a “first step”). As a rule of thumb, when the earnestly expressed aspirations amount to 100-120 years, the life-span attained by humanity’s longest-lived,[xi] the person who expresses them might be characterized as a “moderate life-extensionist” or simply a “life-extensionist.” Beyond that period, the aspirant may be termed a “radical life-extensionist.” And those who envision virtually no potential limit to the human life-span may be categorized as “immortalists.” Yet, even without mentioning any specific time periods, life-extensionists can be identified by such expressions as “defeating/reversing aging,” “fighting/overcoming death” or even by a prevalent emphasis on the “prolongation of life” or “longevity” generally. These emphases are prominent in the writings of life-extensionists, but almost conspicuously absent in those who might not be categorized as such. The desire to prolong human life may be generally implied in medicine, but it is not always expressed. And certainly, speaking of “radical life-extension” is often considered bad taste among physicians and biomedical researchers.[xii] Furthermore, biology textbooks often do not include aging and dying, not to mention longevity, among the processes of life.[xiii] For the life-extensionists, these topics are central.
A further distinction may be expected to be found in the specific methods proposed. Yet, it appears that the distinction may consist not so much in the specifics of the methods, but rather in their specific purposes. As will be exemplified, several biomedical methodologies were developed for the explicit purpose of life-extension and rejuvenation, rather than for the treatment of particular diseases, even though these methods also drew on and were applied to other fields of medicine. The non-identity of the pursuit of health/eradication of diseases and the prolongation of life was first expressed by Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836), the renowned German hygienist, physician to the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm III, and to Goethe and Schiller. Hufeland coined his own term for life-extension – “macrobiotics.” (The word “macrobiotes,” designating the extremely long-lived, appears as early as Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) who also notices the interest in this subject in Herodotus, c. 484-425 BCE, and Hesiod, c. 750-650 BCE.[xiv]) The term “macrobiotics” has survived to the present. In Macrobiotics or the Art of Prolonging Human Life (1796), Hufeland thus distinguished the art of life-extension from the general medical art:[xv]
This art [of prolonging life], however, must not be confounded with the common art of medicine or medical regimen; its object, means, and boundaries, are different. The object of medical art is health; that of the macrobiotic, long life. The means employed in the medical art are regulated according to the present state of the body and its variations; those of the macrobiotic, by general principles. In the first it is sufficient if one is able to restore that health which has been lost; but no person thinks of inquiring whether, by the means used for that purpose, life, upon the whole, will be lengthened or shortened; and the latter is often the case in many methods employed in medicine. The medical art must consider every disease as an evil, which cannot be too soon expelled; the macrobiotic, on the other hand, shows that many diseases may be the means of prolonging life. The medical art endeavors, by corroborative and other remedies, to elevate mankind to the highest degree of strength and physical perfection; while the macrobiotic proves that here even there is a maximum, and that strengthening, carried too far, may tend to accelerate life, and consequently, to shorten its duration. The practical part of medicine, therefore, in regard to the macrobiotic art, is to be considered only as an auxiliary science which teaches us how to know diseases, the enemies of life, and how to prevent and expel them; but which, however, must itself be subordinate to the highest laws of the latter.
Indeed, the emphasis on the treatment of particular diseases may distinguish general medical practice from life-extensionism. The cure of a disease might be more readily and immediately perceived, while the ascertainment of human life-extension may be a more lengthy and confounded process. Moreover, the possibility of “radical life-extension” is not yet subject to empirical confirmation. These might be some of the reasons why “life-extension” or even “longevity” is not often mentioned in biological or medical discourse.
Yet, it would be a great mistake to think that life-extensionism is somehow watertight and separated from general biology or medicine and that it can be defined by some particular and exclusive “method.” Life-extensionism is not a method; it is an aspiration and a motivation. Or more precisely, it is a reason to develop and apply a method, primarily for the purpose of life-extension, which however may also involve treatment of particular diseases. Hence, life-extensionists can be distinguished by their goals, rather than by their methods. Proponents of the very same methods can be perceived as life-extensionists or not, based on the expressed motivations. Moreover, most authors under consideration were not exclusively involved in life-extension research, but also in other fields of biomedicine, often achieving high prominence in these fields. The research of aging, or “gerontology,” was a primary field of study, but in no way the only one. Prominent and often world famous scholars and scientists from different fields who sympathized with the life-extensionist goals are the focus of the current study.[xvi] The interest of these authors in radical life extension has received little attention in biomedical history. The current work addresses these omissions. The scientific contributions of the protagonists were extensive, as was their public appeal, and their life-extensionist views and motivations need to be considered to create a more rich and balanced biomedical history. Insofar as the authors extrapolated on and created contemporary biological and medical advances, the history of life-extensionism represents an integral, though until now under-appreciated, part of the general history of biology and medicine.
When referring to the general difficulty of defining “holism” in twentieth-century medicine, the American medical historian Charles Ernest Rosenberg pointed out that “twentieth-century medical holism has to be understood primarily in terms of what it was not.”[xvii] In a similar fashion, life-extensionism might be understood by “what it was not.” That is to say, life-extensionist programs may be better appreciated by analyzing the reactions and criticisms raised against them and by their counter-reactions. I would like to suggest three general types of reactions to life-extensionist programs. The first (and very common) type is simply ignoring the topic of life-extension, the kind of reaction which omits aging and longevity from processes of biological development. (Such a reaction might be due to the simple reluctance to think about dying or about struggle with the apparently inevitable end.) In this sense, life-extensionism stands out simply by emphasizing the topics which other authors do not. The second type is the principal opposition to the task of life-extension, seeing life-extension far beyond the present life-expectancy as ethically undesirable and theoretically impossible. The American historian Gerald Joseph Gruman, the author of the best available history of early life-extensionism (or “prolongevitism” to use the term coined by Gruman) – A History of Ideas about the Prolongation of Life. The Evolution of Prolongevity Hypotheses to 1800 (1966)[xviii] – termed such principal opposition “apologism,” an attitude rationalizing and even apologizing for our mortality. Earlier, the British philosopher Herbert Spencer defined the opposition as the “pessimistic” as contrasted to the “optimistic view” of increased longevity (1879). “Legislation conducive to increased longevity,” Spencer wrote, “would, on the pessimistic view, remain blameable; while it would be praiseworthy on the optimistic view.”[xix] Several principal ethical and political objections are commonly raised, such as “overpopulation,” “boredom,” “injustice” and a few others. Such objections were reviewed and countered by the bioethicists Robert Veatch, John Harris and others.[xx] The historical tradition of these ethical objections questioning the very desirability of life extension will be considered in greater detail, in Chapter 4, in the section “British Allies – Literary and philosophical life-extensionism: The optimistic vs. the pessimistic view. The reductionist vs. the holistic approach” and mentioned passim throughout the text.
Another branch of the principal opposition asserts the theoretical impossibility of radical life-extension. The most common argument has been that there is a “limit” to the human life-span which cannot be overcome. The various perceptions of this limit will be focused on and referenced in Chapter 4, in the sections “Theories of Aging” and “Rectifying ‘Discord’ and conserving ‘Vital Capital’” and passim throughout. Yet, it should be noted from the outset, that even when proposing a “limit” to the life-span, it was often realized by the proponents that this “limit” is quite flexible and theoretically not very limiting. As stated by the Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Phillips Feynman, “there is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death.”[xxi] Yet, practical limits, the constraints in our ability to greatly increase the human life-span with the current technological means, have been realized even by the most ardent life-extensionists. Their only distinctive feature appears to be the desire and the striving to overcome those limits.
The third type of reaction was the specific response (critical or accepting) to particular theories or methods proposed for life-extension, or to particular research programs and therapeutic modalities directed toward this purpose. The discussions of this type will occupy the bulk of the present history. It appears that the main responders to the specific life-extension programs were life-extensionists themselves (for whom this was indeed a major topic of concern). Their responses to particular programs were often severely critical and fiercely controversial. Among the enthusiasts of life-extension, the disagreements have been wide. A battle has been waged throughout the century between “reductionist” and “holistic” approaches, with alternate success. “Spiritualists” scorned what they perceived as the ineptitude of modern medicine and science; while “materialists” despised what they saw as unscientific quackery. Even within the “materialistic” branch, there has been much controversy: The more academic life-extensionists argued between themselves on theories, “limits” and funds, and all together attacked unproved remedies which were in turn defended by their providers. Yet, despite all these controversies, life-extensionism may still be seen as a significant intellectual movement, defined by the common goal. Beside the shared goals, other common denominators of life-extensionism will be sought in this study, such as a pursuit of constancy, stability and adaptation.
In summary, the three aims of this survey are, first, to fill an important lacuna in biomedical history by looking at the understudied history of life-extensionist research and its diverse methodologies; second, to examine the motivating factors for life-extensionist research by looking at the people behind the work, their biographies, psychologies, philosophies, and social and political contexts; and the third, overarching aim, is to collect a broad register of life-extensionist authors, and, based on that register, to find common and definitive characteristics of the life-extensionist intellectual movement and its role in science and society.
With specific reference to the scientific projects initiated by life-extensionists (the first aim), the current study examines an interrelation between holistic/hygienic approaches and reductionist/therapeutic approaches. The primary focus of the current research is on the formative first half of the twentieth century, with an extension to a later period. I argue that the failure of reductionist “endocrine rejuvenation” attempts, that began at fin-de-siècle and culminated in the 1920s, impacted profoundly on the development of longevity research. The reactions to the failures of earlier reductionist rejuvenation were characteristic. A large number of researchers made a transition to a more holistic approach (such a reaction was particularly pronounced among life-extensionists in France and Germany of the 1930s-1940s). Others conceived of the failures as building blocks and signposts for a continued pursuit on the same path, viewing the human body as a machine in need of repair, and searching for new reductionist methods for its prolonged maintenance by surgery or pharmacological supplements (this type of reaction was prominent among many life-extensionist researchers in the US and the USSR of the 1930s-1940s). Thus, the disillusionment with reductionist endocrine rejuvenation exemplifies varied responses to a scientific failure and modifying research approaches in response to that failure. The conflict between reductionist and holistic approaches will be shown to continue throughout the 20th century. Though, it should be noted that several researchers succeeded in combining reductionist and holistic methods. Moreover, several lines of biomedical research will be shown to owe their beginnings and changing forms to particular life-extensionist enterprises.
With reference to the ideological and social determinants (the second aim), I argue that the hopes for life-extension have been coupled to a wide variety of nationalities and ideologies. Insofar as the conditions at home had the most effect, the data are organized according to national contexts. The following contexts are considered: France (Chapter One), Germany, Austria, Romania and Switzerland (Chapter Two), Russia (Chapter Three), the US and UK (Chapter Four). (Unless otherwise specified, all the excerpts are in my translation.) No ideological system or nation seems to have had a monopoly, however strongly it asserted that it constituted the rock-solid foundation for the pursuit of longevity. It may even be that, rather than providing such a foundation, political ideologies enlisted the hope for life-extension to increase their appeal. It therefore appears that radical life extension is a cross-cultural value, with a common humanistic appeal above and beyond any particular ideology. Nevertheless, life-extensionism was a strongly ideologically and socially constructed enterprise: In different national contexts, different, and often conflicting, ideological schemes – secular humanism or religion, socialism or capitalism, materialism or idealism, elitism or egalitarianism – yielded different justifications for the necessity of life prolongation and longevity research and impacted profoundly on the way such goals were conceived and pursued. This work investigates such ideological, socio-economic and national backgrounds, and exemplifies the integral adjustment of the specific scientific pursuits to prevalent state ideologies.
In attempting to establish common defining characteristics of life extensionism (the third aim), I will argue that the persistent striving for adjustment indeed constituted such a defining trait. The term “adjustment” is used here as a general heading in its common dictionary sense. Thus, for example, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “adjustment” (synonymous with “adaptation”) as achieving “balance” within a given environment. And “balance” (synonymous with “equilibrium”) entails “stability,” “steadiness” and “constancy.”[xxii] All these terms have been key in life-extensionist writings, and they have been often used interchangeably. The emphasis on these notions could be expected. If adaptation is a defining feature of life, and if a harmonious, balanced state of equilibrium entails durability and constancy, it is hardly surprising that the proponents of the extension of life were determined to adapt and maintain equilibrium and stability without limits, for their own bodies, for their research projects, and for the societies in which they lived. Yet the task of defining specific local adaptations and equilibria is daunting, either for the body or the society. This work will attempt to examine some of the more general forms of adaptation characteristic of particular national contexts and will instantiate these general forms by more nuanced examples of adaptation of particular life-extensionist projects.
In relation to the society, I will examine the adaptation of life-extensionist programs to what might be termed “dominant” or “hegemonic” socio-ideological orders. Such “dominants” can be most clearly perceived in the 1930s (a major focus of this work): Socialism in Russia, National Socialism in Germany, Capitalism in the US. In France, the “dominant” was more difficult to see, yet the strong rise of political “traditionalism” in the 1930s-early 1940s may be significant. I would like to suggest three common types of adjustment of the life-extensionist thought, which will be exemplified in particular contexts. The first is the rhetorical support of the ruling socio-ideological order (if only to ensure the continuation of the research). This is a kind of mimicry, “when in Rome, doing as the Romans.” Sometimes it was difficult to distinguish whether such support was purely opportunistic or honestly believed in. (Often this distinction did not seem to have any implications for the authors’ words or deeds; when a person was compelled to believe in something to survive, he would seem to believe in it with all his heart, if only to avoid cognitive dissonance.) The second form of adjustment was the positing of metaphorical socio-biological parallels between the workings of the body and of the society in which the authors lived. The society provided the frame of reference for scientific metaphor (“as above, so below”) and when the perceptions of the “above” changed, so did those of the “below.” And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, specific research projects were often favored as compatible with the ruling socio-ideological order. As will be exemplified, under particular national ruling regimes, certain lines of research were simply not allowed to flourish or were discouraged. In all these senses, life-extensionism was “adjusted” to the ruling national orders or to more local orders. Yet, the striving for adaptation, that is, maintaining stability within a particular environment, appears to be universal for the life-extensionists. Moreover, the support of the existing ruling regime, whatever it may be, may derive from the nature of life-extensionism that seeks stability and perpetuation. In this regard, a question may be raised regarding the forms of society that would indeed merit such a perpetuation.
In relation to the body, the striving for stabilization and equilibration has been equally persistent. Insofar as the stability and equilibrium of the body have been perceived to be under continuous threat of disruption and destruction, means for preserving the constancy of the body (or the constancy of the “internal environment”) have been relentlessly sought through a variety of methods. And if some particular methods – “holistic” or “reductionist,” “hygienic” or “therapeutic” – failed to maintain this constancy, new methods for stabilization would be sought, either by embracing a scientific or therapeutic paradigm opposed to the one that failed, or by continuing in the earlier paradigm hoping for its gradual perfection. Still, the desire for constancy appears to be universal and only sought by varied and often novel means. Thus, the underlying conservative (or conservationist) proclivity of prominent life-extensionist scientists in many countries, seeking stability and perpetuation, may have been a source for their diverse and often unorthodox scientific and medical developments.
France: The origins of the life-extensionist movement. Maintaining the Equilibrium and dissolution into the Whole
France was a fertile, perhaps even a primary, ground for the life-extensionist movement, since the Enlightenment and even earlier. In the late 19th – early 20th century, the pursuit of life-extension was encouraged by peaceful and prosperous social conditions, and by the philosophical traditions of positivism, liberalism and progressivism. In this period, France produced some of the world’s ground-breaking advancements in the theory of aging, methods of rejuvenation and life-extensionist philosophy, epitomized by the works of Elie Metchnikoff, Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard, Serge Voronoff and Jean Finot. In the early 20th century, the practice of reductionist endocrine rejuvenation, essentially viewing the body as a machine in need of repair and refueling, formed the main stem of the French life-extensionist movement. Yet, with the growing realization that the effectiveness of reductionist rejuvenation methods falls short of their initial promise, a shift of emphasis occurred in the 1930s toward more “holistic” (or “Neo-Hippocratic”) approaches to life extension, emphasizing the organic unity of the human being in integration with one’s physical environment, social and psychological milieu, and with a shift of focus from interventionist therapy to life style improvements, physical and psychological hygiene. The “holistic shift” is epitomized by the works of Auguste Lumière, Alexis Carrel and Alexander Guéniot. The shift of emphasis towards “holistic” approaches corresponded with the contemporary resurgence in France of traditionalism, Christian revival and political conservatism, particularly during the Vichy regime. With a withdrawal from reductionist rejuvenation endeavors, France appears to have lost its leading position in the life-extensionist movement.
2. The French tradition. The legacy of the Enlightenment
The radical prolongation of life has been a desire of humanity and a mainstay motif in the history of scientific pursuits and ideas throughout history, from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and the Egyptian Smith medical papyrus, all the way through the Taoists, Ayurveda practitioners, alchemists, hygienists such as Luigi Cornaro, Johann Cohausen and Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland, and philosophers such as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Benjamin Franklin and Nicolas Condorcet.[xxiii] However, the beginning of the modern period in this endeavor can be traced to the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th century, to the so called “fin-de-siècle” period, denoted as an “end of an epoch” and characterized by the rise of scientific optimism and therapeutic activism, with life-extensionism representing their most radical form.[xxiv]
The fin-de-siècle was a time of peace, yet with a widely felt apprehension of stagnation, of a crisis, even of an imminent extinction of humanity.[xxv] At the same time, contemporary scholars delighted in the astonishing scientific, technological and industrial achievements of the period: the advances in transportation, energy supply, manufacturing, agriculture and general medical care.[xxvi] It appeared to them evident that science, perhaps for the first time in history, did have the genuine ability to ameliorate social plights, cure diseases and extend human life. Advocates of radical life extension extrapolated on the technological advances and were motivated by them. The scientific and technological achievements, they believed, would be limitless, and the core values of the Enlightenment, of reason and progress, would eventually triumph, making the human beings masters of their destiny, even of their own mortality.
The contemporary hopes were summarized by Jean Finot (1856-1922, born Jean Finkelstein in Warsaw, a prominent French-Jewish journalist and social scholar, and an activist of the anti-racial movement). In The Philosophy of Long Life (1900)[xxvii] – positively reviewed by Gustave Kahn, Paul Margueritte, Otto Horth, and by Finot’s close friend Max Nordau – Finot projected scientific and social progress ad infinitum:
The progress of hygiene; the increased comforts of the working classes; the results obtained by serum therapy, which has revolutionized medical science by giving it the means of fighting infectious diseases, that most important factor in human longevity, all these are so many elements which may perhaps allow us to draw near to the beautiful dream fondly imagined by the authors of Genesis. Methusaleh, ancestor of Noah, was, according to the latest Bible criticism, only a myth, but who knows whether, thanks to the progress shown above, this myth may not some day become a reality? When liquid air shall have destroyed the evil effects of the unhealthiness of big towns, and synthetic chemistry have delivered us from the poisons contained in adulterated food; when electricity facilitates life by reducing its labor; when universal peace rids us of mortality on the battle-field; when humanity at last, thus freed from misery and its warlike instincts, as well as the debilitating principle of hate, shall have found its end in the life-giving domain of love and universal fraternity, then we may see longevity again drawing near to its natural limits.
The observed improvement in the quality of life, the decline in mortality, the steady increase in the average lifespan, as well as the existence and the reported growing number of centenarians, reassured Finot in the future success of prolonging the human life to 150 years and beyond.[xxviii] Many of Finot’s contemporaries were similarly convinced: the Russian/French/Jewish biologist Elie Metchnikoff, the Russian/French/Jewish surgeon Serge Voronoff, the Austrian/Jewish physiologist Eugene Steinach, the Russian physician and politician Alexander Bogdanov, the British playwright Bernard Shaw, the American physician and writer Charles Stephens, to name just a few proponents of super-longevity that will be studied here. Mere “hoping” was not sufficient – an active search for life prolonging means became for them an imperative. Representatives of many countries joined the search. And yet despite this multi-focality, France was very notably at the forefront of the global progressivist movement and fin-de-siècle France may be well considered a birthplace of modern life-extensionism.
France was a fertile, perhaps even a primary, ground for the life-extensionist movement, since the Enlightenment and even earlier. French Aristocracy had been traditionally quite fond of the idea of a significant prolongation of their lives, gladly acquiring the means made readily available. Thus, Andre du Laurens (1558-1609), physician to the French king Henry IV, supplied hopeful health regimens for the retardation of old age, much in the Galenic tradition.[xxix] In 1612, there was published Livre des figures hiéroglyphiques (The Exposition of Hieroglyphic Figures) by the Parisian alchemist Nicolas Flamel (1330-1417), seeking to “prolong life to the moment ordained by God.”[xxx] In 1667, Jean-Baptiste Denis, physician to King Louis XIV, transfused blood from sheep to men for the patients’ “placation” as well as for their rejuvenation.[xxxi] René Descartes too might be considered among life-extensionists. In the Discourses (1645) he pledged to advance medical science, and asserted that “we could free ourselves from an infinity of maladies of body as well as of mind, and perhaps also even from the debility of age” (emphasis added).[xxxii] Latter on, Louis XV (1710-1774) and Madame de Pompadour sponsored the great “master of rejuvenation” and claimant to immortality, Count St. Germain (1710-1784), a fact mentioned in Giacomo Casanova’s Memoirs (1797). Following suit, Louis XVI (1754-1793) and Marie Antoinette pampered Giuseppe Balsamo (Count Allesandro Cagliostro, 1743-1795), a man of equal notoriety.[xxxiii] Stories of these men's super-longevity and miraculous rejuvenating nostrums filled Versailles.
After the subversion of the monarchy, the rationales for life-extension were adjusted to the changing political situation. Life-extension was no longer perceived primarily as a task of preserving royalty and high aristocracy, but rather as a more common, progressive humanistic task. By the end of the 18th century, Nicolas Condorcet (1743-1794), the great philosopher of the Enlightenment and ideologist of the French Revolution, formulated a consistent “progressive” philosophy and eschatology in which the striving for life extension played an integral part. According to Condorcet, “melioration in the human species [is] susceptible of an indefinite advancement.” Hence, human life “will itself have no assignable limit” and “the mean duration of human life will for ever increase.”[xxxiv] By the mid-19th century, the positivist philosophy of Auguste Comte reaffirmed the ideals of progress, and included increasing longevity as one of the elements of progress, even though this element was not overwhelmingly emphasized. In The Catechism of Positive Religion (1852), Comte referred to a long life as a blessing, and claimed that an “ideal existence [is] the simple continuation of our real life,” that “death is not in itself the necessary consequent of life,” and that the inheritance of beneficial characteristics may improve the health and longevity of future generations.[xxxv] Comte’s general notion of positive progress, “the improvement of man's moral and physical nature,” chimed with the aspirations of French life-extensionists from the fin-de-siècle onward, from Elie Metchnikoff through Alexis Carrel.
Several late 18th-early 19th century French scientists, such as François-Joseph Broussais (1772-1838) and Marie-François-Xavier Bichat (1771-1802) developed models of human longevity in response to external stimuli. For Broussais, physiological inhibition was the path to conserving the vital energy and hence increasing longevity. In contrast, for Bichat, internal stimulation was the key to resistance against the constant threat of death from the environment.[xxxvi] As a middle ground, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) believed that the duration of life is determined by the balance between “disintegration and destruction followed by recuperation and renewal” and this balance “prolongs the life of the individual so long as the equilibrium between these two opposed elements is not too rudely disturbed.”[xxxvii]
Other French biologists attempted to determine the natural limit of human life, which, in their calculations, should be far longer than the life-span commonly attained. Thus, Georges-Louis Buffon (1707-1788), posited the 7:1 ratio between the maximal longevity and the period of growth, hence reaching the figure of 140 years for a normal human life-span. Later, Marie-Jean-Pierre Flourens (1794-1867), employing a similar principle, arrived at a somewhat lower figure (100 years). According to his calculations, the life-span of mammals equals 5 times the period of their growth (~20x5 for man). The century life-span, according to Flourens, however, should be a norm of “ordinary life.” In “extraordinary” cases, human life could be prolonged to two centuries or a century and a half. “A first century of ordinary life,” Flourens wrote, “and almost a second century, half a century (at least) of extraordinary life, is then the prospect science holds out to man.”[xxxviii]
By the end of the 19th century and in the first quarter of the 20th century, France remained the epicenter of the life-extensionist movement. In the 19th century, major contributions to the study of aging were made by French pathologists.[xxxix] Working in the Parisian hospices for the elderly – the Salpêtrière for women and the Bicêtre for men – Charles-Louis Durand-Fardel (1815-1899) and Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) – had at their disposal almost unlimited clinical and autopsy materials. Charcot, Durand-Fardel and their followers carefully investigated the pathological tissue changes in old age: changes of the lungs, the brain, and the blood vessels.[xl] This work was summarized in treatises, such as Durand-Fardel’s Traité clinique et pratique des maladies des vieillards (Clinical and practical treatise on the diseases of the aged, 1854) and Charcot’s Leçons sur les maladies des vieillards et les maladies chroniques (Lectures on Senile and Chronic Diseases, 1868). Some hygienic measures were suggested to alleviate the suffering of the aged (such as Charcot’s baths). However the mid-19th century médecine de vieillards (medicine of the aged) was quite limited in combating senescence, hence any explicit hopes for radical life-extension are absent from these writings. Nonetheless, the work of the French physicians laid the foundations for the understanding of the pathology and physiology of senescence and outlined measures of intervention.
Perhaps an even more substantial impetus was given by the Therapeutic Activist approach, advanced by Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) and Claude Bernard (1813-1878). Pasteur, having confirmed the germ theory of disease, having developed measures for preventing food spoilage, and having produced vaccines (using attenuated bacterial and viral strains) against a panoply of diseases – chicken cholera, rabies, anthrax, etc. – vindicated the ability of experimental medical science to eradicate disorder and prolong human life. And Claude Bernard, in the pioneering works on “internal secretion” and “internal milieu,” established that “the fixity of the internal environment is the condition for free, independent life.”[xli] Such a fixated stability (later termed “homeostasis”) could, in theory, be maintained for prolonged periods, through conscious interventions into the “internal milieu.” Even though any specific aspirations for radical life prolongation were not to be found in either Pasteur or Bernard, the Therapeutic Activist approach that they promoted, greatly contributed to the advent of modern life-extensionism in fin-de-siècle France. Thus, the foremost researcher of life-extension at the turn of the century, the Nobel Prize winning biologist Elie Metchnikoff (1845-1916), was Pasteur’s protégé and député at Institut Pasteur. Another crucial contemporary proponent of life-extension, Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard (1817-1894), the president of the French Biological Society, one of the founders of modern endocrinology and the inventor of rejuvenative hormone replacement therapy, was Claude Bernard’s pupil and successor at Collège de France.
3.“Father” Metchnikoff (1845-1916)
The indisputable leader of the life-extensionist movement, its most respected spokesman, was Elie (Ilya Ilyich) Metchnikoff, whose teachings formed the crux of the great part of the contemporary discussions on longevity. The renowned immunologist and microbiologist, a vice director of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and the Nobel Laureate in Physiology/Medicine of 1908 for the discovery of phagocytosis (a major contribution to the cellular theory of immunity), he was also credited as “the father” of gerontology (the disciplinary term he coined).[xlii] To the present day, his scientific reputation has remained high, and was almost incomparable in the USSR and the ‘Eastern’ bloc.[xliii]
After battling for two decades for the acceptance of his theory of phagocytosis (the German leader of microbiologists, Robert Koch, was its mighty opponent),[xliv] since the 1890s Metchnikoff concentrated on mechanisms and counter-measures of aging.[xlv] This was a direct continuation of his immunological research, as he suggested the “devouring phagocytic cells” to be the major culprits of senescence. This in fact became a first (if not the first) scientific, empirically based theory of aging and longevity, rooted in observations of dynamic cellular behavior. From the scientific theory of aging, there followed practical propositions for increasing longevity. Hence Metchnikoff can be considered the “father” of the modern life-extensionist movement.[xlvi] He summarized his work in The Etudes on the Nature of Man (first published in 1903)[xlvii] and The Etudes of Optimism (1907)[xlviii] – representing contemporary state-of-the-art scientific “bio-materialistic” methodologies for life-extension. The works were grounded in uncompromising materialism and positivism, Darwinism, liberalism and pacifism, and a profound optimistic belief in human progress and perfectibility.
As Metchnikoff recurrently admitted, he was not always optimistic.[xlix] After the study abroad, in 1870 he became a full professor of zoology (at the age of 25) at Odessa University, Ukraine. He stayed there until 1882, when he was forced to retire due to student riots and the reactionary policy of the university authorities, following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in March 1881. Due to the lack of funds, he almost accepted a position of a district entomologist in Poltava, Ukraine. But thanks to a small inheritance of his second wife Olga, he was able to conduct independent research on comparative embryology in Messina, Italy, where he stumbled upon his most important discovery of phagocytosis. As a result of the sojourn in Messina, he “transformed from a zoologist into a pathologist and bacteriologist.”[l] After coming back to Ukraine, he struggled for two years as an independent researcher, in a laboratory he set up in his flat. That enterprise having failed, he established a bacteriological station in Odessa, to produce Pasteur’s vaccines against Rabies, Anthrax, etc. But the unending bureaucratic red tape, revisions and persecutions by the district authorities, and the incessant ridicule by the press and by the local medical associations, made his work unbearable. In 1887, he sought the patronage of Louis Pasteur, who gladly placed at Metchnikoff’s disposal a division at the newly established Pasteur Institute, which became Metchnikoff’s home to the end of his days.
Metchnikoff’s personal life was also quite tempestuous (he was married twice, though never had children). After his first wife, Ludmila Fedorovitz, died from tuberculosis in April 1873, he attempted his first suicide, taking a large dose of opium. After his second wife, Olga Belokopytova, contracted typhoid, he made another suicide attempt, in April 1881, in a more scientific fashion, by injecting himself with relapsing typhoid bacteria. Surprisingly, following this attempt, his generally failing health, especially the eyesight, radically improved. (To the end of his research career, Metchnikoff remained quite fond of treating himself and his colleagues to a hefty dose of potentially harmful sera.) Having recovered his wife’s and his own health, having left behind the unbearable and pointless bureaucratic and political struggles in Odessa, having assured his scientific reputation, having found financial security and a productive, cooperative scientific environment at Pasteur’s Institute in Paris – Metchnikoff entered the self-termed “Optimistic” or “Life Asserting Phase of Life” which directly entailed his life-extensionist philosophy. This pattern will recur in many other instances, where life-extensionism arose from the desire to have ‘more of a good life,’ under conditions of economic and social security, individual and national. Such prosperous conditions produced a wish to perpetuate the present agreeable state.
4. Attractions of Paris and the "Nationality" of life-extension
Fin-de-siècle France provided a fertile ground for life-extensionism generally, and for Metchnikoff in particular. Metchnikoff loved Russia, he remained in close contact with leading Russian intellectuals (including Tolstoy), and advocated the development of Russian science. Yet, in “The Story of How and Why I Emigrated” (1909), he explained his reasons for leaving the motherland. At the epidemiological station, his work was thwarted by bureaucratic hurdles, by unjustified, excessive control of government auditors, by the misunderstanding and opposition of the medical establishment and the press. He could not continue in the university either, partly because of the political “fermentation” among students, disrupting the normal course of study, partly because of political repressions on the part of the university authorities (for example, disqualifying socialist applicants). He could not stand the deceptions and betrayals within the academia. Another reason was Russian Anti-Semitism (not necessarily aimed at Metchnikoff himself, since, even though his mother was a converted Jewess, his father was a Russian nobleman).[li] Metchnikoff explained:[lii]
Dr. [Eugène] Wollman became my excellent assistant [at the Pasteur Institute]. I owe this to the fact that he is a Russian Jew; therefore a scientific career is closed for him in Russia. If he had stayed in Russia, he – like my other colleague, Dr. [Alexandre] Besredka, who is already highly reputed in science – would have led the abject existence of a general medical practitioner. His attraction to science would have remained fruitless, and would have faded, leaving in the soul the bitter sense of an undeserved insult. This is how they get rid of talent in Russia.
The situation in Paris was much more auspicious:[liii]
In Paris, thus, I could achieve the goal of scientific work, unencumbered by any political or other social activities. In Russia, on the other hand, the obstacles from above, from below and from aside, made the accomplishment of this dream impossible. It might be thought that the time has not yet come for science to be useful in Russia. I disagree. I believe, scientific work is absolutely essential for Russia, and I wish, whole-heartedly, that its conditions improve in the future.
In Paris, Metchnikoff remained involved in political and ideological debates, but there, unlike in Russia, these did not encumber his research. Notably, the criticisms of the Russian scientific establishment were expressed by Metchnikoff in France, not in Russia. In Russia, he could not afford to openly oppose the regime. While living in France, Metchnikoff became a Russian dissenter and a staunch French patriot.
Despite the changing national allegiances (or rather thanks to them), Metchnikoff may be considered a foremost representative of both the Russian and French life-extensionist traditions (see Chapter 3 of the present investigation on Russian life-extensionism). The American historian Peter Wiles, in “On Physical Immortality” (1965),[liv] argued for the inherent or predominant “Russianness” of the life-extensionist movement. He contrasted the Russian attitude with the attitude of the “highly rationalistic” French who presumably neglect this pursuit. There seems to be little evidence for such assigning of a Russian ‘national trait.’ In fact, a much stronger case can be made for the predominant “Jewishness” of life-extensionism, listing luminaries and adducing quotes from traditional texts on the valuation of life in Judaism. (Wiles never identified Metchnikoff, Voronoff, Steinach, or any other life-extensionist as Jewish.) Yet such a claim might be equally fallible. Indeed, there were many Russians and Russian (or Jewish) immigrants in the movement at the beginning of the 20th century. But there were also many British, German, Austrian, American, Romanian, Japanese, Spanish and Italian proponents, et cetera. And certainly, historically the “highly rationalistic French” were far from being averse to the idea of radical life extension. As we shall see, the struggle for life-extension has been coupled, in specific ways, to a widest variety of cultural identities and ideologies.
5. Competing factions
The long tradition of rejuvenation attempts and hygienic regimens for the retardation of old age, the ideology of progress and enlightenment, the in-depth pathological and physiological examinations of senescence, the rise of Therapeutic Activism, and the peaceful and optimistic atmosphere – rendered fin-de-siècle France a welcoming soil for the growth of life-extensionism. However, the advancement of biomedical science and super-longevity were not the only aspirations in France in that period. In the introduction to the second edition of The Forty Years in Search of a Rational Worldview (February 19, 1914),[lv] Metchnikoff outlined the contemporary intensifying competing ideological and social trends. He felt the “ubiquitously growing antagonism to the scientific world view. In Russia, this antagonism manifests in the attraction to mysticism. … Even in much more positive France, in recent time, antagonists of the positivist philosophy (the philosophy that had developed on the French soil) have become increasingly vocal.” Metchnikoff perceived the futility, even danger of infatuation with militant socialism. He further lamented the strengthening of anti-intellectualism, anti-liberalism and war-mongering. Such tendencies, according to him, gradually progressed:
Soon after the Frankfurt Treaty [1870, following the defeat of the French in the Franco-Prussian war], with a complete inability to take revenge, many progressive Frenchmen turned to peaceful activities. Hence their admiration of intellectual progress, the cult of science and art…. But gradually there developed a reaction to this trend… The possibilities of alliance [against the Germans] were encouraging…. The advances in automobilism and especially aeronautics, gave a new impetus to the warlike temperament of the French.
The “cult of sport” was replacing the "cult of science and art," and the “youth of the brain” was pushed aside by the “youth of the brawn” for whom “war seemed to inspire the most noble human virtues: energy, self-control, self-sacrifice for the higher goal.”
Even more emphatically, Metchnikoff opposed the waxing spiritualism, epitomized, according to him, by the teachings of the philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941): “Bergson preaches the limitations of knowledge and valorizes intuition, struggling to convince us of the existence of a soul independent of the brain function and of the existence of a free will.”[lvi] According to Metchnikoff, this “religion of action, of energy, of human will” suited the current aspirations of the French youth, who “spurned positivist professors and rushed to hear Bergson’s lectures.” Metchnikoff recognized the sources of Bergson’s popularity: “Science, having promised to alleviate human suffering, has proved, time and again, its impotence …. Having lost faith in knowledge, no wonder many turned to metaphysics with its hopes for the immortality of the soul and happiness in an afterlife.” For Metchnikoff, Bergson’s proofs of an immortal, independent soul carried no scientific evidence, and were mere comforting “lullabies.” Metchnikoff offered an alternative – the scientific pursuit of life-extension:
The second of Bergson’s questions “What are we doing in this world?” should be formulated differently: “What should we do in this world?” Our answer to this, presented in this work and elsewhere, can be stated as follows: “We should, by all means, strive that people, ourselves included, live their full life cycle in harmony of feeling and of mind, until reaching, in the ripest old age, a sense of saturation with life. The main misfortune on earth is that people do not live to that limit and die prematurely.” This statement is the basis of all moral actions… It is difficult to imagine that, in some more or less distant future, science will not accomplish this goal and will not solve the problem of the prolongation of human life to a desired limit, as well as rectify other disharmonies of the human nature.
Still, in contemporary France, the receptivity to the ideals of scientific and technological progress was high, and Metchnikoff believed that, in such a milieu, scientific rationalism and life-extensionism would be victorious, while anti-intellectualism and aggression would become things of the past.
Five months after the writing, with the outburst of The First World War on July 28, 1914, Metchnikoff’s hopeful forecasts were shattered, while his apprehensions were vindicated beyond any measure. Millions were killed in battle, with no small help from science and technology. Millions more died in the concomitant pandemics of typhus and influenza, against which science and technology were largely powerless (the epidemics apparently subsided by themselves, after the war was over and living conditions improved).[lvii] Yet Metchnikoff’s program of life prolongation remained valid for a “more or less distant future,” for more prosperous times. But at the time of war, as Metchnikoff recurrently admitted, his research became “almost impossible.”
6. Optimistic biology
The Etudes on the Nature of Man (1903), were written earlier, at the height of what Metchnikoff termed a “life-asserting phase,” and epitomized his optimistic philosophy. The work envisioned that extreme longevity can be achieved through the progress of medical science, requiring a massive collective effort. Metchnikoff believed that it is our duty as conscious human beings to fight death, the main disharmony and evil of nature. He strongly emphasized that each death has an identifiable, combatable cause and in this sense every death is “violent” and not “natural.” The fact that everyone must succumb to it does not make it right or even acceptable.[lviii] From the assertion of the desirability of increasing the life-span, Metchnikoff proceeded toward formulating a theory of aging, and, based on the theory, toward suggesting actual or potential means of anti-aging intervention.[lix] Metchnikoff’s practical suggestions for life prolongation through material/biological mediators, included microbiological and toxicological methods (which can be tentatively termed “elimination of damaging agents”), and he also alluded to hormone therapy and gland transplantations (which could be generally termed “biological replacements”). The goal was to achieve a long-lasting substance and energy balance.
In summary, according to Metchnikoff’s generalized systemic theory of aging, in the body there occurs a constant struggle between “noble” (differentiated, functional) “elements” (tissues) and “primitive” (non-functional, undifferentiated, “harmful”) cells and tissues damaging the harmonious function of the former. That general description fitted various contemporary conceptions of aging and death: loss of protein elasticity, desiccation, autoimmunity and cancer. Accordingly, the general path to life-extension was to “strengthen the noble elements,” while “attenuating” or destroying the primitive harmful ones; in other words, working by “subtraction” and “addition” toward “balance.”[lx] Essentially, a conflict was posited between the degenerative and regenerative processes.
Metchnikoff specified germ-related diseases as a major cause of premature (“violent”) death and maintained that these diseases are tractable. Several anti-microbial and anti-viral agents were listed, among which the most notable were inoculations and antiseptics. These medical contrivances have saved millions of lives and showed beyond any doubt that medicine does have the real ability to cure illness and extend life. Metchnikoff mentioned the success in fighting such scourges as smallpox and syphilis. At the turn of the twentieth century, arsphenamine (“Salvarsan”) was used against syphilis by Paul Ehrlich (who received the Nobel Prize in 1908, in the same year as Metchnikoff). This proved to be the first effective specific chemotherapy. As a vice-director of the Pasteur Institute, Metchnikoff also actively tested arsenicals and worked on a vaccine against syphilis. He suggested an infectious etiology of cancer and expected a cure, perhaps a vaccine. Since then, the existence of cancer-inducing viruses has become established, and anti-cancer vaccines begin to appear.[lxi] Among the anti-microbial agents mentioned by Metchnikoff, some seem to anticipate antibiotics, in accordance with Louis Pasteur’s principle “La vie empeche la vie” (life against life). Alexander Fleming’s penicillin, Felix d’Herelle’s anti-bacterial phage therapy and Gerhard Domagk’s “sulfa-drugs” appeared later, in the 1920s-1930s.[lxii] These almost synchronous discoveries may seem serendipitous, yet Metchnikoff’s earlier study attests to the massive effort on the part of the contemporary scientific community searching for anti-microbial agents, that eventually led to the discoveries and a substantial increase in human life-expectancy.[lxiii]
Besides exogenous infection, endogenous intoxication and infection were said to be most potent though controllable causes of degeneration and death, acting through blocking or interfering with vitally important structures and processes. Over-proliferating phagocytes were specified as the agents “devouring” the noble elements, while the build-up of “non-functional” connective tissue was said to replace the noble (parenchyma) tissues (e.g. the tissues of the muscle, kidney, lung and brain) and to contribute to the development of sclerosis. Among the toxic products of body metabolism, special attention was given by Metchnikoff to those produced by intestinal micro-flora. These toxins were said to contribute to functional incapacitation and general degeneration of the body, and specifically to the development of tissue hardening. The toxins (such as indole) produced by intestinal bacteria (e.g. Clostridia) were believed to, on the one hand, stimulate the “devouring” macrophages’ activity, and, on the other, weaken the noble parenchyma tissues and make them easy prey for the macrophages.
Parallels between Metchnikoff’s visions of a harmonious body and a harmonious society can be clearly observed: in both cases, stability and longevity were to be achieved by the protection of the “noble” functional elements from the disruptive or oppressive elements from “above, below and aside.”
7. "To live long, you must live poor”
According to Metchnikoff, the most practical and readily available means to fight the intoxication is through an appropriate diet. In Metchnikoff’s theory, fermented/acidified dairy products (such as yogurt), containing lactic acid bacteria, are able to suppress putrefactive microflora and detoxify the body. Metchnikoff himself followed this dietary practice and attributed to it his relatively high longevity (though coming from a very short-lived family). Generally, Metchnikoff advocated a simple and restricted diet. He believed luxurious cuisines favor toxigenicity, and therefore are detrimental to health and longevity, to the “correct course of life” or “orthobiosis.” This line of thought has continued in the multitude of modern dietary practices aimed at life-extension and life-enhancement, including bio-active, vitamin-rich, pro-biotic, anti-toxic, anti-inflammatory, differential and calorie-restricted diets.[lxiv]
The importance of simplicity in diet was further expanded by Metchnikoff and his followers to include the simplicity and moderation of the entire life style. Indeed, Metchnikoff might in the main agree with the English philosopher Herbert Spencer’s dictum that “the highest conduct is that which conduces to the greatest length, breadth, and completeness of life” (The Principles of Ethics, 1897).[lxv] But Metchnikoff’s vision of progress differed from that of Spencer who defined it as increasing complexity, or that of another English philosopher, Winwood Reade (The Martyrdom of Man, 1872) who saw it as a gradual improvement of human capabilities. For Metchnikoff, progress only meant life as long and healthy as possible for as many people as possible, and the way toward it was not through increased complexity, but rather through greater simplicity. The life-prolonging properties of fermented milk products were suggested to Metchnikoff by the robust and long-lived Bulgarian peasants for whom this was a traditional diet. After Metchnikoff’s endorsement, this nutritional regimen spread from Europe to the US and Japan, giving birth to “probiotic” diets.[lxvi] The success was greatly due to the fact that such products were cheap and could be consumed massively by almost all strata of society, including the very poor.
Other contemporary life-extensionists took moderation to extremes, and claimed that in order to live long, the person must be poor. This was the professed conviction of Dr. Arnold Lorand (1865-1943?), a highly successful French/Austrian physician, working in the 1910s-1920s at Carlsbad (Karlovy Vary Spring Resort, Czechia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and in the 1930s in the resorts of Nice, France. In Old Age Deferred: The Causes of Old Age and its Postponement by Hygienic and Therapeutic Measures (1910), Lorand preached:[lxvii]
If we were asked for the best means of living to be 100 years old we would say: become a peasant or a pauper and be received into an English work-house… They have no anxieties about getting their daily bread, and oftentimes are fed better than they would have been in their homes, although only the minimum amount of hygienic food is given… Workhouse inmates lead a very regular and frugal life, rising in the small hours of the morning and retiring to bed early in the evening. Thus, in winter time, they can never contract pneumonia by coming home late from the overheated theatre, concert, or club-house. They also need not worry about their fortunes, for they have none.
This comes from a wealthy, elite physician, proud of his friendship with members of the European aristocracy, who prescribed to his clientele, for dinner (against constipation) “Roast or boiled meat, two sorts of green vegetables (by preference spinach), French beans, carrots, boiled lettuce, one course of stewed compote of fruit, and finish with dessert of grapes, figs (dried or green), or preserved plums (California or Bordeaux).”[lxviii] “A peasant or a pauper,” having to subsist on carbohydrate-rich “poverty foods” – bread, potatoes and cereals – might have benefited little from this advice.
Jean Finot too concurred with the theory that “to live long you must live poor.”[lxix] But unlike Lorand, Finot admitted to the fact that “statisticians seem as a rule hostile to this theory.” According to statistics, the rich live longer. Finot sought a middle course: “The truth is always found in the middle. If riches spare us certain privations which decimate the poorer classes, they deaden, on the other hand, our powers of resistance.” This argument was later developed by uncompromising Soviet gerontologists. Thus, Prof. Vladimir Nikitin of the Kharkov Institute of Biology, Ukraine, claimed in 1962 that “the pathological shortening of human life is mainly the result of class antagonism; therefore the first requirement for orthobiosis [prolonged healthy life] is the replacement of capitalism by socialism.”[lxx] That is to say, to help the rich not to die of gluttony and the poor of starvation, classes should be abolished, and a healthy “mean” achieved – an idea inherent in the Soviet ideological paradigm. Fin-de-siècle life-extensionists went to no such lengths as to suggest a de-classification of society; by no means did they intend to upset the existing social order. They did, however, preach moderation and poverty, a check on hedonistic aspirations, a message of contentment to the poor and of warning to the rich liable to abuse their wealth. The preaching of moderation may thus be viewed as an effective device for the conservation of the existing social order. And the emphasis on moderation appears to be as old as life-extensionism itself.[lxxi]
8. Methods of rejuvenation
Acidified milk (yogurt) consumption was primarily advocated by Metchnikoff and later by a host of rejuvenators as an easily practicable, inexpensive and noninvasive way both for providing necessary nutrients and for “combating the agents of damage” – the putrefactive micro-flora. Other methods of combat were much more cavalier. In Metchnikoff’s theory, the large intestine is the main seat of putrefactive bacteria, and is therefore a major source of intoxication. Accordingly, a possible method of eliminating such a source of damage was to extirpate the large intestine by surgery, once and for all. The Scottish surgeon William Arbuthnot Lane (1856-1943) undauntedly went through with this method, in the period when triumphant surgeons routinely removed the appendices, tonsils and uteri, just in case, as a prophylactic measure.[lxxii] Metchnikoff understood the logic behind such interventions, but cautioned (1910):[lxxiii]
Dr. Lane, the uncommonly skillful and courageous English surgeon, dared to resort to operation, instead of a prolonged and ineffectual internal treatment… Naturally, such an operation is very dangerous and presently yields very many lethal cases. Dr. Lane did over 50 such operations, and at the beginning of the last year described in detail 39 cases. He lost 9 patients, or about 23%, which is a high mortality rate. However, this intervention proved highly beneficent for the other 30 patients. Such patients, who had been suffering tremendously for many years, after the surgery became revitalized and productive. Dr. Lane’s system was, of course, met with strong opposition. His opponents condemn the entire method, citing the high mortality rates. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the operation technique can be improved and thus the mortality rates reduced.
Elsewhere Metchnikoff further valorized minimally invasive methods. “In the present state of surgery,” he wrote, “we cannot expect a success from a direct extirpation of these intestines, but we can rely on an artificial change of intestinal flora, that is, the replacement of harmful bacteria by beneficial bacteria.”[lxxiv]
Yet another “moderately” invasive method, suggested by Metchnikoff as a means to eliminate the agents of damage, was by serum therapy (immunotherapy). At first, he attempted to develop a serum to destroy the “devouring” phagocytes. These attempts having failed, Metchnikoff started developing mildly cytotoxic sera to elicit an immune response of “noble” parenchymal tissues and induce their stimulation. He did not succeed in these attempts either. None the less, this line of research was later carried on by the leading Soviet gerontologist and life-extensionist, Academician Alexander Bogomolets (1881-1946), who developed the Anti-Reticular Cytotoxic Serum (ACS) precisely for the purpose of immunizing and stimulating connective tissues, for the prolongation of life.[lxxv]
Yet, the primary technique for rejuvenation practiced at the beginning of the century was “endocrine rejuvenation.” The seekers of rejuvenation invested in “far-reaching” biomedical technologies with uncertain prospective results. These were the first developers of “replacement therapy.” They were not averse to radical surgical interventions, but instead of “subtraction,” “destroying the agents of damage,” they placed their hopes in “addition,” in “strengthening the noble tissue,” through replacing or regenerating organs and tissues. Some “rejuvenators” promised immediate and radical results, and for that were relegated by their critics to the realm of quackery.[lxxvi] Most of them, however, presented their methods as the first experimental steps in a research program for the future, based on the first emerging theories of aging which, they hoped, would be developed further on.
9. Adding to the balance: Rejuvenation by supplements
Since the seminal work of August Weismann Über die Dauer des Lebens (The Duration of Life, 1882),[lxxvii] through the 1920s and later, senescence and death were widely explained as due to tissue differentiation.[lxxviii] According to these theories, differentiated, functional tissues lose the ability to regenerate (in contrast to the immortal “germinal plasma”), hence general “degeneration” or “involution” ensues. Among the differentiated tissues, some were assigned a primary status in causing aging. For some, the heart and the blood vessels played the primary role, in accordance to the dictum of the French physician Henri Cazalis (c. 1870) “on a l’âge de ses artères" (the man is as old as his arteries).[lxxix] According to others, the degeneration of the brain and the nervous system were the chief culprits in aging.[lxxx] For some, it was specifically the middle brain (mesencephalon).[lxxxi] For great many others, the primary root of senescence lay in the degeneration or involution of various endocrine glands. For the Austrian physiologist Wilhelm Raab, the pituitary gland played the key part, for the French/Austrian physician Arnold Lorand it was the thyroid, for the Austrian surgeon Eugen Steinach (1861-1944) and the French surgeon Serge Abramovich Voronoff (1866-1951) it were the sex glands.
The assignment of a primary role in aging to a single endocrine gland, led to suggesting the enhancement (supplementation) of that gland deficiency by corresponding glandular extracts, transplants or stimulations.[lxxxii] The regimens of supplementation were designed to “supply a demand” or “compensate for a deficit” in the body "economy." Thus, Arnold Lorand observed the similarities between Myxoedema (thyroid deficiency) and senescence. Hence he designated a causative role in senility to the thyroid gland impairment, seeing aging as a peculiar form of disease that could be treated by supplying thyroid extracts from animals, their only available source. Generally, Lorand prescribed rather standard hygienic regimens: much fresh air and sunshine, breathing deeply, exercising, consuming meat once a day and lots of vegetables (Metchnikoff’s “acidulated milk” was also recommended), masticating properly, bathing, ensuring regular elimination, sound sleep, avoiding overstrain by work (reserving a day in a week for complete rest), avoiding mental stress, benefiting from marriage and neither overdoing nor completely avoiding sex, temperance with alcohol, tobacco and other stimulants. But the crowning point in Lorand’s life-extending approach was the suggestion “to replace or reinforce the functions of the organs which may have become changed by age or disease, by means of the extracts from the corresponding organs of healthy animals; but only to do this under the strict supervision of medical men who are thoroughly familiar with the functions of the ductless glands”[lxxxiii] (Lorand’s emphasis). Even though the greatest weight in Lorand’s work was placed on the thyroid, supplementations of other glands were also important: the extracts of the kidneys, pancreatic extracts, ovarian and testicular preparations. A good understanding of complex endocrine functions, of the dangers of their hypo-activity or hyper-activity, and a personal approach, were said to be paramount. According to Lorand, only a member of the physicians’ guild is qualified to recognize hormonal deficits and supply the demands, though the responsibility for implementing the rest of the hygienic suggestions is placed in the hands of the individual enthusiast.
There may seem to be nothing radical about Lorand’s advice, it was all standard hygiene (with the possible exception of glandular extracts). Lorand strongly negated the possibility that “the aged can be transformed into sprightly adolescents.” At the same time, he claimed that “We need no longer grow old at forty or fifty; we may live to the age of ninety or one hundred years, instead of dying at sixty or seventy. All this can be brought about by the observance of certain hygienic measures, and by improving the functions of a certain few of the glandular structures in our body.”[lxxxiv] This was indeed a radical statement, at the time when the average life expectancy was 40-50 years, that we can all and now double it. This hope sharply contrasted with the assertions of the contemporary American physician, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Morris Fishbein (1889-1976), who basically advised the same hygienic measures as Lorand, including glandular supplementation, yet claimed that we “may now confidently look forward under all ordinary circumstances to reaching the age of fifty to fifty-five years"[lxxxv] and that “there has been, however, but little average prolongation of life beyond the age of seventy, and there is not the slightest scientific reason to believe that there ever will be.”[lxxxvi]
Lorand’s claim may have been even more drastic than Metchnikoff’s. Metchnikoff believed that human beings may reach the 150 years mark, but that will occur in “a more or less distant future.” In the mean time, the life span can be increased but moderately, and much further research will be needed to prolong it radically.[lxxxvii] These might have been the principal contrasts between the early century attitudes to life extension: those of the “Skeptics” like Fishbein who made a case for “therapeutic nihilism” and against a “Medical Utopia” versus the “Theorists” urging for extensive research and its massive public support, versus “Practitioners” offering readily available means here and now, according to the laws of the market. Lorand’s approach is representative of a host of rejuvenators practicing at the beginning of the 20th century, singling out a particular failing component (gland) in the human machine and attempting to restore its function by replenishing or replacing this component.
10. Masculine Forever – Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard (1817-1894)
Among the methods of glandular supplementation practiced in the first quarter of the century, the sex glands were by far the most important targets. The energy expended on sex played a central part in the bio-economic models of aging. Thus, Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) made an equation between the life drive and libidinal/sexual energy or “Eros” defined as an instinct “exercising pressure towards a prolongation of life.”[lxxxviii] The replenishment of the sexual “active principle” has been deeply rooted in the humoralist tradition. The idea of “gerocomia” (literally “care of the aged,” involving the prolongation of life by proximity to young healthy individuals, or sexual stimulation) goes back at least two thousand years. It was prescribed by Galen and practiced by King David (1 Kings 1:2).[lxxxix] The strengthening and conservation of the vital/sexual energy, the chi (often associated with semen), was the basis of Taoist techniques for life extension.[xc] Animal tissue preparations containing a “revitalizing substance” (e.g. from the horns of rutting bucks or animal testicles) were widely used by the Chinese “external alchemists.” The German Physician Johann Heinrich Cohausen (1665-1750), distinguished by his meticulous collection of prescriptions for longevity and rejuvenation, Tentaminum physico-medicorum curiosa (1699),[xci] in the treatise Hermippus Redivivus (Hermippus Revived, 1742) speculated on the rejuvenating influences of exhalations from young maidens. He traced this type of gerocomia to ancient Rome and discussed its uses up to his time (in the Middle Ages and the early modern period).[xcii] Sexual stimulation and conservation of sexual energy were also discussed by the German life-extensionist physician of a later date, Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836), in Macrobiotics or the Art of Prolonging Human Life (1796).[xciii]
Though there has been a long tradition associating sexual vigor with longevity, sex gland supplementation rose to unprecedented prominence in the late 19th century thanks to the work of the French scientist, Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard. In Brown-Séquard’s work, the ancient “revitalizing principle” assumed a very tangible chemical and physiological substance. Serving as the President of the French Biological Society and Chair of Medicine at the Collège de France in Paris (form 1878 to 1894, the post formerly occupied by his teacher, Claude Bernard), Brown-Séquard was a foremost authority in endocrinology, having proven specific effects of internal secretions, particularly those of the sex glands. In the widely publicized presentation to the French Biological Society of June 1, 1889, entitled the “Effects in man of subcutaneous injections of freshly prepared liquid from guinea pig and dog testes,”[xciv] Brown-Séquard announced his first attempts at hormone replacement therapy for rejuvenation, introducing longevity and rejuvenation research as an integral part of scientific discourse, and in fact establishing the field of therapeutic endocrinology.
In that seminal address of 1889,[xcv] Brown-Séquard proceeded from the observation that “true eunuchs are remarkable in their feebleness and their deficit in physical and intellectual activity” and the conviction that “analogous defects are observed in men who abuse coitus or masturbate” to the assumption that “these along with numerous other facts, clearly show that the testicles furnish to the blood, … principles which give energy to the nervous system and probably also to the muscles.” It followed that the supplementation of these deficits by animal sex gland extracts can retard senility. Their almost miraculous reinvigorating effects on his own person were described by Brown-Séquard, ending with a call for further research. (For Brown-Séquard the reinvigoration was not lasting, he died 5 years later, at the age of 77.)
Brown-Séquard’s line of reasoning will reappear in the writings of his most loyal followers – Eugen Steinach and Serge Voronoff. Contemporaries met Brown-Séquard’s suggestions with mixed admiration and distrust. Some critics attacked the author personally. Thus, Deutsche medizinische Wochenschrift wrote “[Brown-Séquard’s] fantastic experiments with testicular extracts must be regarded almost as senile aberrations.” And the Wiener medizinische Wochenschrift echoed, “The lecture must be regarded as further proof for the necessity of retiring professors who have attained their threescore years and ten.”[xcvi]Other criticisms were more scientifically grounded. Thus, Dr. Amédée Dumontpallier (1826-1899) noted in 1889 that the results of Brown-Séquard’s experiment may be due to a non-specific stimulation: “M. Brown-Séquard better than anyone, knows that common peripheral irritations, more or less repeated, non-inflammatory irritations in many physiological and therapeutic experiences often show dynamic effects manifesting themselves by some degree of return of major (physiological) functions.”[xcvii] In other words, no matter what you inject, the body will respond by general stimulation. Another, the most common, objection against Brown-Séquard’s experiments, was that the results were possibly due to auto-suggestion.
In the initial address, Brown-Séquard anticipated these concerns:[xcviii]
I hope that other older physiologists will repeat these experiments and demonstrate whether or not these effects in me depend only on my idiosyncrasy… The interesting work of Dr. Hack Tuke is full of facts showing that the majority of the changes which I have observed in myself, after the injections, can be brought about solely by suggestion in the human organism. I wish not to deny that a part at least have occurred in that manner, but since they follow the introduction into the organism of a substance capable of producing them, it must be granted that the injections have at least contributed to their origin.
He later defended his method with greater confidence. He ruled out non-specific stimulation, since the effects of the testicular extracts were constant and lasting. Further, he quoted similar case studies by other investigators to negate the possibility of auto-suggestion. For example, in a controlled experiment, Dr. Gaston Variot injected “blood tinted water” (with no effect) followed by injection of animal testicular fluid (with a positive reinvigorating effect) – “without the patient’s knowledge [!]”. Brown-Séquard concluded that “the works I have cited and numerous others no longer permit me to suppose that the effects I observed in myself depended partly or entirely on one special idiosyncrasy or an auto-suggestion.”[xcix]
He further refuted priority challenges from other users of glandular extract therapy (or as it was then commonly termed “organotherapy” or “opotherapy,” from the Greek “opos” – juice). The opotherapists’ methods of tissue preparation, he maintained, were unsound and destructive, their applications were narrow and bordered on “charlatanism.”[c] They “exploit the deep desire of a large number of individuals” and expose them to “greatest risks.”[ci] It remained the heavy task of Brown-Séquard’s followers, in particular Voronoff and Steinach, to rule out auto-suggestion, exclude the treatment’s non-specificity, and validate the experimental methods.
Despite the criticisms, Brown-Séquard’s work was recognized as trail-blazing, by contemporaries and successors. Even his opponent, Dumontpallier, admitted that Brown-Séquard’s work was “extremely interesting” and potentially “of tremendous significance.” In that work, Brown-Séquard first explicitly introduced the concept of Replacement Therapy, the “supplementation of the deficit from inadequate spermatic secretion.” Without venturing any figures for a maximally attainable longevity, he formulated the fundamentally pro-active ideology of life-extensionism:[cii]
They show great ignorance who maintain that it is impossible in old men to reverse their organic state so that they resemble that of an earlier age, especially since the organic changes resulting from better nutrition are possible at all ages… Critics of my ideas have said that it is well known that senile degeneration and wasting present insurmountable obstacles, especially return of neural center function both in the sensory and the motor apparatus. A study of the excellent work of Charcot on Aging (Studies of Diseases of Old Men, Paris, 1868) and a number of other works show that nothing about senility is constant nor absolutely characterized. … If the degenerations, if the senile alterations are diseases, a day will come when it will be possible to cure them.
At the fin-de-siècle, Brown-Séquard stood at an epicenter of ideological and scientific debates on life-extension. A decided materialist, he loathed to embrace “ethereal” mind-over-body influences, and struggled to entirely rule out auto-suggestion. He fought both against powerful opponents in the scientific establishment and against popular opotherapy practitioners unaffiliated to the academia, abjured by him as “charlatans.” The sage President of the French Biological Society strove to establish a movement within the academy, rather than to incite a revolt against it.
Another point of debate was the importance assigned by Brown-Séquard and his successors, Steinach and Voronoff, to sexual function. In many earlier works on longevity – such as that of the Italian preacher of moderation Luigi Cornaro (1467-1566, Discorso sulla vita sobria - Discourse on a sober life, 1566) or the Flemish Jesuit priest Leonardus Lessius (1554-1623, A Treatise of Health and Long Life - Hygiasticon, 1613) – sexuality was brushed under the carpet. In the later Macrobiotics by Hufeland (1796), only one of its 19 chapters was directly dedicated to sex life, and basically amounted to an advice on sexual moderation.[ciii] In Brown-Séquard, and later Steinach and Voronoff, sex function assumed the absolute centrality.[civ] The "rejuvenators" had both to assert the "sex-centric" perspective and pay tribute to conservative mores, by affirming the value of moderation and by recurrently emphasizing that sexual reactivation is mainly intended for the general physical and intellectual reinvigoration, and not primarily for a pursuit of sexual pleasures.
11. Rejuvenation by Grafting – Serge Voronoff (1866-1951)
Perhaps the most ardent follower of Brown-Séquard was Serge (Samuel) Abramovich Voronoff. Born in 1866 near Voronezh, Russia, a son of a wealthy Jewish manufacturer, he immigrated to Paris in 1884 at the age of 18 and became a naturalized French citizen in 1895. (The drive and ability to adapt in the new country must have been strong, as Voronoff was often said to have become “more French than the French.”[cv]) In Rejuvenation by Grafting (1925),[cvi] Voronoff related the history of his method. While serving as a personal physician of the Egyptian viceroy Abbas II, in 1898 he observed the enfeeblement of eunuchs, which led him to believe in the invigorating and rejuvenating power of the sex glands. In 1913, he began experimenting with tissue grafting, first perfecting the technique at College de France in Paris (the workplace of Claude Bernard and Brown-Séquard) and at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York. In 1917, he moved on to animal experiments with sex gland transplantations (ovaries, but predominantly testes). The technique basically involved grafting pieces of testicular tissue into the scrotum (not replacing the entire organ as might be imagined). After testing the technique in animal models, in 1920 he started male sex gland transplantations in humans for the explicit purpose of rejuvenation and life prolongation. Between 1920 and 1923, 52 such testicular grafting operations were performed: in one case the graft was taken from man (a homograft), in all the other cases from apes (xenografts). In 1930, Voronoff reported 475 cases of testis transplantations from apes.[cvii] Refinements on Voronoff’s technique were offered by his collaborators: Édouard Retterer, Placide Mauclaire, Lois Dartigues, Raoul Baudet and others. The sex gland tissue grafts were intended to renew the supply of “revitalizing” sex hormones, to provide a renewed “source of life.”
Voronoff thus became a pioneer of live tissue transplantation in humans, a fact which is seldom acknowledged. Even though his name has remained widely known (especially in Russia, proud of the fame of its native son[cviii]), it is carefully omitted from Western medical histories. In the rare cases it is mentioned, Voronoff’s technique is either vilified or marginalized. Voronoff's side of the story remains veiled.[cix] A sympathetic scholar of prolongevity, Gerald Gruman (1966)[cx] suggested the possible reasons for a marginalization of longevity research. One is the long tradition of reconciliation with mortality. Another, perhaps even more powerful explanation, is the failure of many rejuvenation and life-prolongation attempts (such as Voronoff's), earning the field a stigma of charlatanism:
Another reason is the fact that there are few subjects which have been more misleading to the uncritical and more profitable to the unscrupulous; the exploitation of this topic by the sensational press and by medical quacks and charlatans is well known. Furthermore, the past fifty years have seen the failure of at least three highly publicized remedies for aging: at the turn of the century, there was the fermented-milk fad [Metchnikoff’s proposition]; in the ‘twenties, there were transplants of sex glands [Voronoff’s method]; and, in the ‘forties, there was the cytotoxic serum advocated by Bogomoletz.
Yet, elsewhere Gruman acknowledged Metchnikoff’s crucial role in establishing gerontology as a scientific field. Bogomolets’s role in developing immunotherapy and in the institutionalization of gerontological research, and Voronoff’s role in developing hormone replacement therapy and transplantation, as well as their contribution to the philosophy of life-extensionism, should also be acknowledged.
In the works Rejuvenation by Grafting (first published in English in 1925), The Conquest of Life (1928), and The Sources of Life (1943), Voronoff justified the pursuit of longevity. According to Voronoff, Death cannot be reconciled with, and the goal of human progress is to preserve life for as long as possible, by all means afforded by human ingenuity:
Would it be possible to instill increased vitality into the weakened organs and exhausted tissues of a body worn out by age? Up to quite recent years scientists did not believe that this question could be answered in the affirmative, and they always advised poor humanity, thirsting with a desire to live, that it should accept old age without hope and die without revolt. This is the law of Nature, we were told, and we must submit to it. … Our minds cannot accept this verdict any longer. All human progress is due to the Triumph of Man over Nature…To subdue Nature is to ensure the progress of Humanity. …We now have greater ambitions; we aspire to bring life itself under the domination of our will.[cxi] The ideal towards which all our efforts are tending is to preserve life with the plentitude of its physical and intellectual manifestations, to abridge the duration of old age, to put off Death to the last limit. LIVE YOUNG![cxii] (Voronoff’s emphasis)
In Voronoff, the immediate aims set for human longevity range from 120 to 140-150 years. A fairly standard arsenal of arguments is deployed to prove that radical life extension is possible and that human progress leads in the direction of life prolongation: medicine has advanced rapidly and brought a multitude of diseases under control; senescence is not ‘written in stone’ but is due to identifiable and potentially controllable material causes; death is not an indispensable part of life, since some (unicellular) life forms are immortal, moreover the primordial ability to regenerate is retained in some degree in the human organism, and can be improved. Voronoff was apparently not religious, according to him, “Religion itself brings us only trifling consolation.”[cxiii] Life-extensionism was, however, not exclusively associated with atheism or agnosticism. (Arnold Lorand, for example, was deeply religious and saw Faith as a life-prolonging measure.) Rather than plunging into religious disputes, Voronoff asserted that life-extension is a universal value: “Believers and unbelievers alike call on God or on Science to prolong their existence on earth, and spare them the pitiful infirmities of old age.”
The key word in Voronoff’s writings, as in those of great many other life-extensionists (Finot, Metchnikoff, Lorand, Brown-Séquard, et al.) is “Equilibrium” – both bodily and social. It is the Balance, the Stability, that Voronoff strove to preserve. The social metaphor for the body is unambiguous and is almost identical to Metchnikoff’s and Metchnikoff’s pupil Sergey Metalnikov (another Russian emigrant working in Paris at the period).[cxiv] In Voronoff, as in Metchnikoff, the "specialized, productive" elements contribute to the prosperity of "the whole society," but sacrifice their ability to regenerate, their "own means of resistance," and their harmonious, regulated functioning is threatened by "primitive elements":[cxv]
Thus, as in human society, there is established in the human organism a selection, a hierarchy between the various elements which constitute it, from the humble intestinal cell which, so to speak, prepares our daily bread, up to the delicate and highly perfected cells of the cerebral substance which co-ordinate the labor of all the artisans of our organism, stimulating some, checking others and forming a kind of Roman senate, which governs our cellular republic….By the side, however, of all these more or less perfected and specialized cells, by the side of these industrious citizens, each following a special craft, are beings that are incapable of accomplishing any function requiring a professional education…. Sturdier than any of the other cells, they continually encroach upon the places occupied by the noble cells, which, sooner or later, wear themselves out… The conjunctive cell ["the plebeian"] brings into an organized society a kind of anarchy which causes its death.
In agreement with Metchnikoff’s model of “Subtraction and Addition,” Voronoff believed that a prolonged organic balance can be achieved by “attenuating” the “primitive elements” and/or “strengthening the noble elements.” Voronoff ultimately depreciated the “Subtraction” and valorized the “Addition,” claiming that “it is the connective tissue, in fact, which forms the supporting framework for the other tissues and serves them as an intermediary for the passage of liquid nutriments." It follows that “we must not, therefore, find a means to destroy the conjunctive cells, as we have to do in regard to harmful agents which come from the outside.” In contrast, all efforts should concentrate on "reinforcing the noble cells, increasing their vitality and their resistance. … to stimulate some, to replace others which have grown old and become worn out, is to render ourselves masters, so to speak, of our lives.”[cxvi]
Voronoff further emphasized that the future of medicine and life-prolongation lies with “addition,” with supplementation or replacement therapies, and perceived his own technique as such a preliminary method.[cxvii] He made every exertion to present his sex gland grafting technique (quite invasive as it was) as minimally invasive, as just restoring the natural state of balance of the body, by no means upsetting the status quo. Both Voronoff’s socio-biological metaphors and his insistence on maintaining a “natural state” of the body, demonstrate that for Voronoff (as well as for Metchnikoff and Brown-Séquard, and, as will be exemplified further on, for the vast majority of life-extensionist authors) the conservation of stability and order, both biological and social, was a primary aspiration.
Voronoff was a successful capitalist. His family wealth allowed his education abroad. The position of Abbas II’s personal doctor was well paid. When starting the gland grafting experiments in the 1910s, he was already a prominent, wealthy Parisian physician. The human graft operations were also quite lucrative, the case studies including mostly middle to upper class clientele. The inheritances from his first two wives added more millions to his estate, more than enough to buy a castle in the Italian Riviera (Château Grimaldi).[cxviii] Life-extensionism thrived in prosperity. And the social order Voronoff strove to maintain was the capitalist order. Perceiving the body in terms of capitalist economy, Voronoff recurrently spoke of the body being “in need of new capital with which to defray the expenditures inseparable from life. The idea of bestowing fresh capital upon these bankrupts is of relatively very recent origin.”[cxix] Yet, Voronoff expressed a poignant concern that replacement therapies should not be restricted to a narrow elite. He sought ‘expanding the market,’ making the therapy more accessible. In the 1920s, life-extensionism was often accused of elitism, of being a pursuit for the rich. It was commonly feared that replacement therapies would never be widely shared.[cxx] With the advent of synthetic hormones, however, the accessibility of hormone treatments expanded.[cxxi] It was Steinach who envisioned that replacement therapies are to become more accessible through the development of cheap synthetic hormones.[cxxii] Voronoff, rather, hoped salvation would come from the use of animal organs. He saw organ transplants from humans as hardly attainable, most of all, due to the unwillingness of potential donors. The use of organs from accident victims appeared to him ethically and legally unacceptable: “this method is perhaps inevitably forbidden by law.” Obtaining glands from people on the death bed in hospitals or “from people under sentence of death” too seemed to him “so difficult of realization that they could not be counted upon to afford a practical solution.” Hence, organs from animals seemed a most feasible means “which would assure the benefits of the graft to all who would profit by it” (emphasis added).[cxxiii] Thus, Voronoff sought to avoid the threat to the social stability that might arise due to an unequal access to the rejuvenation procedures, but he sought this within the framework of the current capitalist paradigm which he never wished to upset. The propositions for a wider access were based on a ‘market expansion model’ and on the present set of legal statutes that he did not think could ever change.
12. Rejuvenation World Wide. France and Austria – the seedbeds for the rejuvenation movement. Eugen Steinach (1861-1944)
Sex gland stimulation, supplementation and replacement formed a mainstay of the life-extensionist movement of the 1900s-1920s. Such interventions indicated that the physiological state of the elderly could be manipulated, and some form of “rejuvenation” or restoring the functional capacity and productivity, could be, at least temporarily, effected. Beside Voronoff, analogous methods were exploited by a great number of physicians. In 1919-1920, Dr. Leo Leonidas Stanley performed sex gland transplants among prisoners of San Quentin penitentiary, California. Since the 1910s, human testes were also grafted by the Chicago doctors Victor Darwin Lespinasse, George Frank Lydston and Max Thorek.[cxxiv] At the same time (c. 1918-1920), John Romulus Brinkley of Kansas transplanted goat testicles into humans (according to Voronoff, this was “going much farther than I have gone” and ineffective, since the grafted testicles from goats and rams “become absorbed” in humans). Voronoff did not seem bothered by priority disputes and asserted that science is a cumulative, collective enterprise:[cxxv]
The notion of grafting in general, and of testicular grafting in particular, is not entirely new. So many ideas have emanated from the human brain that it is always difficult to award to any one person the palm for absolute originality. What is new in the idea is its practical application, and in this the last hundred years have shown a marvelous development.
A host of prominent physicians worked on sex gland transplants:[cxxvi]
As early as 1767, Hunter grafted the testicles of a cock into a hen. The experiment was repeated by Berthold in 1849, Philippeaux in 1858 and Montagazza in 1864. In our day, Steinach of Vienna holds the first place; he performed testicular grafts on rats… Pezard has grafted testicles into hens and castrated cocks…. Experiments on cocks, guinea-pigs and white rats have been carried out by Zavadovski, Knud Sand, Lipschutz, Nusbaum, Maissenheimer, Cuthrie, Mushan, and Payer. Mauclaire, the author of a remarkable work on grafting, Lichtenstern, Thorek, Jahnu, Hammond, Enderlen, Sutton, Lespinasse, Morris, Lydston, McKennen, Stanley, Keller, Lissmann, Gregory, Mariotti, and Falcone have made grafts with human testicles which they were able to obtain from the human subject, under special circumstances similar to my own experience with a cryptorchid testicle.
In the 1920s, “endocrine rejuvenation” became a world wide movement, spreading from the US to Russia. Yet, France and Austria emerged as the primary and competing rejuvenation superpowers. Beside Voronoff, a crucial figure in the movement was the Viennese physician Eugen Steinach. Life-extensionism in German-speaking countries will be discussed in greater detail in the subsequent chapter. Yet, the centrality of Austrian rejuvenators, particularly their patriarch Eugen Steinach, needs to be emphasized from the outset, as the “Steinach operation” was a most widely publicized method of endocrine/sexual rejuvenation in the 1920s beside Voronoff’s sex gland transplantations.
First performed in a human patient on November 1, 1918, the Steinach operation involved the ligation of seminal ducts (“vasoligation” or vasectomy) to suppress the sperm-producing activity and thereby to stimulate the hormone-producing activity of the “interstitial tissue” of the testis. Such enhanced sex hormone production was assumed to effect “rejuvenation,” “revitalization” or “reinvigoration.” The general rejuvenating effects were ascribed by Steinach to the whole-body increase in the blood flow (hyperemia) produced by the sex hormones (though Steinach recognized other methods of blood flow increase, such as diathermy, massage, exercise and baths). To avoid infertility, the operation was commonly performed only on one of the two spermatic ducts. This method enjoyed an incredible vogue. William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) were among its beneficiaries.[cxxvii] Steinach specified the methods in great detail in Verjüngung durch experimentelle Neubelebung der alternden Pubertätsdrüse (Rejuvenation by Experimental Revitalization of the Ageing Puberty Gland, 1920). The results were fully summarized in his Sex and Life. Forty Years of Biological and Medical Experiments (1940).[cxxviii] The latter book was written in Zurich, where Steinach, having Jewish ancestry, had to remain until his death after Austria’s annexation in 1938.
The technique emerged from Steinach’s animal experiments, first reported in 1910, that determined the role of sex gland secretions for the appearance of secondary male and female sex characteristics. Steinach further proceeded to attempt sex gland surgery “to heal the effects of castration and homosexuality”[cxxix] – making a fundamental contribution to general endocrinology and, among other implications, establishing the foundation for later “sex change” operations.[cxxx] Yet, insofar as Steinach was also interested in the duration of the sex hormone action, his experiments expanded into attempts to prolong this action by surgery. These gave birth to the techniques of “Rejuvenation” (Verjüngung) or “Combating Aging” (Altersbekämpfung) either by “autoplastic” surgery (e.g. vasoligation, on the patient’s own sex glands to stimulate hormone secretion) or “homoplastic” surgery (e.g. implantation of sex gland tissue from a donor). In men, the vasoligation of vas deferens was the primary “auto-plastic” procedure; whereas women were “rejuvenated” by fallopian tube ligation, transplantation of ovarian tissue or irradiation of the ovaries. Steinach’s conclusions after the initial ten years of research (in 1920), even though rather cautious, were nonetheless highly optimistic. “Senescence, within certain limits, can be influenced,” he asserted. In men “premature deterioration can be fought against,” and in women “rejuvenating effects” can be produced. Following these experiments, Steinach was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1922 for the “work on transplantation of reproductive glands and particularly on rejuvenation.” In fact, Steinach was nominated for the Nobel Prize 11 times, from 1921 to 1938, but only in 1922 he was nominated with specific reference to “rejuvenation.”[cxxxi]
Steinach embarked upon the rejuvenation research program in 1912, which since then became his main subject and expanded drastically.[cxxxii] After the first vasoligation on the “prematurely aged” 44 year old “A.W.” in November 1918, thousands of operations were performed by Steinach and by the growing number of his followers worldwide, in the first place in Steinach’s native Austria.[cxxxiii] Steinach vigorously championed the priority of Austria in all matters of sexual rejuvenation, renowned by the works of Erwin Last, August Bier, Karl Doppler, Emerich Ullmann, Paul Kammerer, Robert Lichtenstern, Otto Kauders, Gottlieb Haberlandt and others, and in no small measure his own priority. (Patriotism and valorizing one’s own cohort may have been important elements in Steinach’s social adjustment.) And so Steinach did vigorously valorize the “autoplastic” vasoligation that, according to him, was much more “natural” and less subject to “rejection” by the host than the “homoplastic” sex gland transplants that were widely practiced by the French Voronoff. In other parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there were rejuvenators and life-extensionists too: Zoltán von Nemes-Nagy and Istvan Szabo in Hungary, Arnold Lorand and Vladislav Ruzicka in Czechoslovakia. But Austria, particularly “liberal Vienna,” occupied the center stage, in the decades before and after the breakdown of the Empire in 1919-1920.
For Steinach, the sense of vindication was long delayed. Apart from the fierce disputes and competition with other rejuvenators, Steinach had to withstand massive opposition on the part of the medical establishment: “It appeared [in the period 1910-1920],” he recalled in 1940, “as if the whole theory and problem of reactivation and the fight against old age were to be outlawed by official science.” Steinach, the Director of the Biological Institute of the Viennese Academy of Sciences, could not afford to be implicated in quackery or violation of the scientific method. Like Brown-Séquard and Metchnikoff, Steinach worked to conquer the academy from within rather than subvert it. “Rather than waste energy on endless literary controversies,” he related, “I preferred to widen the circle of my friends and followers by establishing one compelling proof after another, thereby disarming criticism and prejudice.”[cxxxiv] While Voronoff claimed that a primary motivation for his research was to find a means of rejuvenation, Steinach asserted that his work started as purely basic research which gradually revealed a possibility of “reinvigorating” the aging body.
Like Brown-Séquard and Voronoff, Steinach had to contend with the accusation that the results in patients were due to auto-suggestion. Steinach confronted the accusation by a wide range of animal experiments and by devising an “objective” test of activation (according to creatine levels). Like Brown-Séquard and Variot (long before the Helsinki guidelines for human experimentation of 1964), he often performed the surgery without the patients’ knowledge (during a concomitant procedure) and then observed the “objective” rejuvenating effects.
Another very common objection against Steinach’s methods, in fact against the majority of rejuvenation attempts by sex gland stimulation, was that the observed results were not those of “true rejuvenation” but only of “erotization.” The semantics had practical implications: by substituting the terms, even highly positive therapeutic results could be dismissed, and the entire program of rejuvenation research undermined. Steinach argued against the identification of “general revitalization” with “improvement of sexual function”:[cxxxv]
The real significance of the hormonic hyperemia which is induced by vasoligature is proof of the falsity, and even malice, of the claim that the effects of sex hormones are confined to the field of sexuality, and that the methods of reactivation are, in fact, no more than a revitalization of sexuality. One cannot say that the contrary is actually the case; but the improvement in the sexual functions is only a small part of a general revitalization which embraces the whole of the organism. For example, the weight increases, the skin becomes smooth and supple, there is improved growth of hair, and the senses are remarkably sharpened.
According to Steinach, such a restoration of the physiological and functional state of the aged is rejuvenation and does enhance longevity.
Multiple forms of rejuvenating sexual stimulation were investigated in the 1920s worldwide – by Jürgen Harms (Germany), Harry Benjamin (US), Norman Haire (UK), Boris Zavadovsky (Russia), Knud Sand (Denmark), León Cardenal (Spain), Vincenzo Pettinari (Italy), Dimu Kotsovsky (Romania), Paul Niehans (Switzerland), Ottmar Wilhelm (Chile), Yasusaburo Sakaki (Japan) – to name a few among dozens. Diathermy or tissue heating was widely employed for invigorating the blood flow (hyperemia induction) in the body generally and in the sex organs particularly. The diathermic heating and hyperemia were mainly induced by electric currents to the tissue (as in the practice of Erwin Last of Vienna), but also by a variety of other means: elastic bandages, suction cups, hot fomentations and blistering agents, or hot air (August Bier, Vienna). In the late 1920s, Dr. Karl Doppler of Vienna practiced chemical “Sympathectomy” by irritating the spermatic cord with toxic phenol. In this way, the sympathetic nerves of the testis’ blood vessels were damaged, and an increased blood flow into the testis produced. This procedure became extremely popular, especially in Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Argentina and Spain.[cxxxvi] In Italy, rejuvenation by injection of testicular blood serum was attempted by Francesco Cavazzi.[cxxxvii] Naum Lebedinsky (Latvia) explored smashing a part of an animal testicle to stimulate the rest of it.[cxxxviii] Rejuvenation was a “male-dominated” endeavor: the studies mainly focused on male sex glands. Experiments on female sex gland transplantation, stimulation and supplementation were performed as well (by Steinach and others) though with less reported successes and in a much lesser scope.
Though “endocrine rejuvenation” was practiced world wide, and Austrian researchers were very prominent, France was still one of the most dominant centers of the movement, where rejuvenation was practiced among the widest and earliest. Yet, as it later became evident, the actual effectiveness of the rejuvenation techniques fell far short of their initial promise. As will be demonstrated below, as the “endocrine rejuvenation” started among the earliest in France, so its popularity ended there among the earliest. This loss of popularity may be explained not just as due to specific technical shortcomings of the rejuvenation methods, but perhaps also due to a perceived failure of their underlying reductionist theoretical basis.
13. The reductionist roots of French life-extensionism
Since the mid-19th through the early 20th century, reductionism and materialism, essentially viewing the human body as a machine in need of repair, underscored most of the ground-laying works of French life-extensionists and rejuvenators. Thus, the primary methodology of the French founders of Médecine de Vieillards (medicine of the aged) and anti-aging interventions in the mid-19th century – Charles-Louis Durand-Fardel, Jean-Martin Charcot and others – was dissection. Through the autopsy dissection, they established the age-related pathological changes in separate organs and tissues, in fact, reducing the entire process of aging to these specific organ changes. Though Durand-Fardel spoke of the life-span being determined by a “vital principle of limited duration”[cxxxix] – finding tissue-specific degeneration was for him by far more determinative. One of the most prominent French researchers of longevity of the mid-19th century, Marie-Jean-Pierre Flourens (1794-1867), asserted that “Just as the duration of growth, multiplied a certain number of times, say five times, gives the ordinary duration of life, so does this ordinary duration, multiplied a certain number of times, say twice, give the extreme duration. A first century of ordinary life, and almost a second century, half a century (at least) of extraordinary life, is then the prospect science holds out to man” (1854).[cxl] He thus determined that human longevity is preset by a mechanical body buildup, as if by winding of a clock-work. And the main line of Flourens’ research on the localization of brain functions (the field he in fact founded) was an epitome of reductionism. Furthermore, one of the first modern scientific theories of aging, proposed by Édouard Robin of the French Academy of Sciences in 1858, posited that aging is due to body “mineralization” or accumulation of “alkaline residues,” “calcification” or “ossification.” Robin’s theory considered lactic acid and “vegetable acids” as possible means to dissolve the “mineral matters” and thus prolong life. Thus, the body was essentially viewed as a rusting and clogging machine subject to a cleanup.[cxli]
The teachings of both Brown-Séquard and Metchnikoff were profoundly materialistic and reductionist. Brown-Séquard suggested that through the supplementation of deficient hormones, bodily equilibrium can be restored, youth returned, and life prolonged. Brown-Séquard’s chief concern was to rule out any psychosomatic influences and to reduce medical intervention to a subtraction or addition of matter. Metchnikoff, in turn, divided the body into “noble” or “functional” elements and “primitive” or “harmful” elements: the former needed to be strengthened or replenished, the latter destroyed or attenuated. According to Metchnikoff, the direct effects of the mind on the body were limited to “some nervous disorders.”[cxlii]
Materialism and reductionism underwrote the work of yet another prominent fin-de-siècle French life-extensionist, the social scholar Jean Finot. In The Philosophy of Long Life (1900), Finot did speak of “Will as a means of prolonging life,” yet for him reductionism held the key for understanding, manipulating and extending life. In Finot’s philosophy, biology is reducible to chemistry and physics, and the complexity of a living organism is reducible to an interrelation of its components. Such a reduction, according to Finot, opens the possibility for engineering life, and eventually for life’s indefinite maintenance:[cxliii]
What is the life of a man? The result of the lives of millions of plastides. For each plastide lives its own life, and there are even cases in which the man dies whilst the plastides composing him continue to live. Now, biology proves to us that among the phenomena observable at a given moment in a living plastide there is none which has no affinity to physics and to the chemistry of inert bodies. Nothing in them permits us to separate them from the body of elements already studied and possible of reproduction. (Emphasis in the original.)
Through “fabrication of living matter,” Finot believed, sentient, immortal beings can be created.[cxliv] (Finot was apparently among the first to discuss this possibility in terms of modern biology and organic chemistry, far in advance of the emergence of the Transhumanist intellectual movement.[cxlv]) Even if the appearance of the “homunculi” may be too remote, the progress of reductionist biology will surely enable life-enhancement and life-extension:
The possibilities of nature are infinite, as [Thomas] Huxley has so justly said. Nothing then authorizes us to doubt that the intensity of life will be some day rendered more powerful by science. It may not perhaps succeed in creating new life. No matter, so long as it can preserve and greatly strengthen existing life. And that will be enough.
Equally in favor of materialism and reductionism were Metchnikoff’s French followers, Albert Dastre and Sergey Metalnikov. According to Albert Dastre (1844-1917), Claude Bernard’s pupil and Chair of the Department of General Physiology at the Sorbonne, reductionism opens the possibility to profoundly manipulate life’s components, since biology “is a particular chemistry, but chemistry none the less. … The vital action is not distinct in basis from physicochemical action, but only in form.”[cxlvi] Subjected to physicochemical manipulation, human beings may “remain forever in full health and guarded from disease.”[cxlvii] And according to Metchnikoff’s pupil at Institut Pasteur, Sergey Metalnikov (1870-1946), senescence and death arise from a disharmony of differentiated body components. (This fundamental tenet was shared by the majority of fin-de-siècle theorists of aging, from Weismann to Metchnikoff.) The basic unit of life, the cell, however was seen as potentially immortal. Therefore, according to Metalnikov, the body, composed of such potentially immortal units, can be made potentially immortal, if only learning to bring the components into harmony.[cxlviii]
Essentially, reductionism formed the theoretical basis for rejuvenation attempts. The “father” of rejuvenative replacement therapy, Brown-Séquard, vigorously defended the specificity of sex hormone injections and countered critics (such as Dumontpallier) who argued that their effects are due to auto-suggestion or non-specific stimulation (i.e. that any injection would produce the same stimulating effect on the body). Brown-Séquard’s follower, Serge Voronoff, continued in his master’s footsteps. Voronoff recapitulated the basic theoretical premise that the deterioration of aging is due to an imbalance of the components comprising the body machinery, and that the balance can be restored through supplementing or replacing failing components. Voronoff’s methodology of sex gland “grafting” was reductionist almost by definition: by substituting a single crucial element in the body mechanism, its ‘run-time’ could be increased. The grafting did affect the whole organism, but the effect was believed to be analogous to replacing an energy carrier (a principal component or a “battery”) to sustain the operation of the entire machine.
The grafting appeared to be a novel, unorthodox intervention, but Voronoff’s (as well as Steinach’s) central claim was that their operations restored the natural equilibrium of the body. The ultimate aim of rejuvenation techniques was, in accordance to Claude Bernard’s dictum, to achieve “the fixity of the internal environment” which is “the condition for free life.”[cxlix] And the means to attain this fixity were through supplementing or replacing those components whose deteriorative change would otherwise threaten the overall body stability. Reductionism might thus be pivotal to the rejuvenation enterprises of the early 20th century: the supplementation or replacement of an isolated component appeared to the rejuvenators a feasible task, perhaps more feasible than attempting to comprehend and/or manipulate the whole of the human reaction to the whole of the external environment. In later assessments, however, reductionist rejuvenation techniques did not appear to live up to their promise.[cl] With regard to Voronoff’s method, the problem of graft rejection by the host appeared almost insurmountable. Replacing or supplementing a single gland did not appear to durably forestall the deterioration of the entire organism, and no conclusive evidence for extending the life-span by such means was offered. Consequently, as we shall see, a recoil from immediate rejuvenation attempts occurred.
As we shall see, in the 1930s-1940s, an increasing number of French life-extensionists began to espouse holistic perceptions of the unity of the mind and body, and the subordination of an individual to society, gradually replacing the earlier prevalent notions of reductionism, physicalism and individualism. The holistic tone in French life-extensionism of the 1930s-1940s was set by the leading French longevity researcher, Alexis Carrel (1873-1944). Echoing Auguste Comte, who asserted that “No sound treatment of either body or mind is possible, now that the physician and the priest make an exclusive study, the one of the physical, the other of the moral nature of man,”[cli] Carrel urged:[clii]
Man is much more than a sum of analytical components. One has to embrace at the same time both the parts and the unity of man, because he reacts like a unit, and not like a multiplicity, to the cosmic, economic and psychological milieu. The solution of grand problems of civilization depends on the knowledge not only of different aspects of humanity, but of the human being as a whole: as an individual within a group, a nation and a race. This is the true science of man…. The conquest of health is not sufficient. It is the progress of a human person that is sought, because the quality of life is more important than life in and of itself.
Such a holistic vision moved away from the earlier materialistic and reductionist proclivities of French life-extensionists.
As we shall see in the following sections, the recoil from reductionist rejuvenation took many forms. First and foremost, since immediate rejuvenation appeared at the time untenable, the scholarly focus seems to have shifted to basic research of aging, predicated on the assumption that only after a comprehensive, lengthy and costly investigation, the complexity of the aging processes can be gradually unraveled, and consequently, in some distant future, actual life-extending interventions may be found. The concepts of bodily “equilibrium” of the early rejuvenators were rather qualitative and vague, and it was necessary to establish precisely what components and quantities constitute “steady states” or deviations from them. To enable such an extensive research, scientific collaboration and public support were deemed necessary, and, since the 1930s, the process of institutionalization of aging research, first national and later international, took place. The first institutions for aging research, in turn, became parts of the concurrent social “equilibria” – adapting to various state regulations and ideologies. The practical aims of aging research became more modest: rather than attempting to effect an immediate and thorough rejuvenation, it became more presentable to seek a thorough understanding of the aging process and perhaps some mitigation of age-related diseases. Such an emphasis on basic research and caution in goals have been expressed by many gerontologists since the beginning of the institutionalization process, during the establishment of gerontology as an international discipline in the late 1930s through the early 1950s.
Another form of withdrawal was a rejection of “surgical” means of rejuvenation, in favor of more “natural” improvements in the life style. Yet another was an abandonment of actual rejuvenation research and practice in favor of more literary, science-fictional or philosophical treatments of the subject of extreme longevity – a futuristic discussion of its potential ethical and social impacts.
Yet perhaps one of the central forms of withdrawal from rejuvenation attempts appears to have been a movement away from their underlying reductionism, and toward a more holistic perspective, emphasizing the mind-body connection. This trend seems to have been salient in the “post-Voronoff” French longevity research community, and was epitomized by the work of Auguste Lumière, the crusader for the revival of “humoralist” medicine[cliii] and Alexis Carrel, the protector of “wholeness.”[cliv]
15. Rethinking rejuvenation – Auguste Lumière (1862-1954)
One of the leading actors in the “holistic turn” in French life-extensionism of the 1930s-1940s was Auguste Lumière. Auguste and Louis Lumière (1864-1948) are renowned for the creation of cinematography in 1895. Perhaps less known is their deep involvement in biomedical research, especially that of Auguste. A fundamental contribution of the brothers Lumière to medicine was their pioneering work on medical photography.[clv] In the late 1890s-early 1900s they were the first to produce high quality color medical photographs. Their invention of auto-chrome plates for medical photography proved indispensable for medical instruction, anatomic, microscopic and histological examinations, embryological and bacteriological research. This work paved the way for all future biomedical imaging, a contribution on a par with Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of X-ray radiography in 1895. The photo-stereo-synthesis plates, developed by Louis Lumière, created an impression of image depth and thus contributed to the origin of tomography. Cinematography itself was enlisted by the Lumières to the service of medical research, the first medical film having been produced by Auguste Lumière in 1895. The contribution of the brothers Lumière to biomedicine was not exhausted by imaging: during WWI Louis constructed articulated arm prostheses for amputees, while Auguste developed a non-adherent anti-septic bandage (tulle gras) that dramatically reduced the time of wound healing, introduced oral anti-typhoid vaccination, anti-tetanus serum booster (sodium persulfate), and more. Auguste’s engagement in biomedicine was especially pronounced. While Louis concentrated more on research and development of photographic technology, Auguste fully dedicated his efforts to biomedical research proper, with a notable emphasis on aging, rejuvenation and life-extension.
For Auguste Lumière, the pursuit of biomedical research was made possible thanks to his excellent financial standing. The Lumière family business (started in Lyon by Louis and Auguste’s father, the painter and photographer Antoine Lumière, 1840-1911) was highly successful. By the 1900s it was setting up cinemas around the world and selling millions of photographic plates each year. Being well established financially, Lumière was not only able to endow medical institutions and charities (such as the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital in Lyon), but also to freely pursue his own clinical and basic studies. In 1896 he set up the Lumière Laboratory (among others sponsoring Alexis Carrel’s first experiments on blood vessels suture). The laboratory became the Lumière Clinic in 1910 and further expanded into the interdisciplinary Lumière Institute in 1930. The Institute comprised cabinets for medical specialists (from cardiology to dentistry), patient facilities (including a massage cabinet and operating room), laboratories for radiological, photographic, electro-diagnostic, bacteriological, histological and biochemical analysis, and therapeutic facilities, including radiotherapy (irradiation with short, ultra-violet and infra-red waves), electrotherapy (negative ionization or ozone therapy), immunotherapy (artificial fever induction), etc.[clvi] This was apparently one of the first such interdisciplinary clinic and research institutes in the world, driven by Lumière’s vision and financed largely out of his own pocket.[clvii]
In Sénilité et Rajeunissement (Aging and Rejuvenation, 1932), Auguste Lumière somewhat regretfully noted that before the age of 40, due to the preoccupation with the “industrial, technical, administrative and commercial” affairs of the Lumière Company, he had little time for instruction in biomedicine. Only by his 50s he was beginning to catch up on learning, and only in his 60s and 70s he was able to start making a contribution to the field.[clviii] And what a prolific contribution it was: over 30 books and hundreds of scientific papers! As he recurrently emphasized, formal medical accreditation was not necessary for him to think and experiment. Moreover, formal instruction, according to him, might even stifle the “native faculties of reason, initiative and curiosity” and only foster “memorization.”[clix] Though he became a member of the Paris Academy of Medicine in 1928, he was not particularly impressed with medical associations, congresses or centralized research centers that, in his view, promoted “dogmatism.” According to him, questions in research and therapy ought to be decided on the basis of clinical and experimental evidence, and not according to rank, titles or affiliations. Being self-funded, he did not depend on established institutions – he owned an institution.
As Auguste Lumière was well established financially, so was he well established politically. For decades he was a pillar of the Lyon community, sitting on the Board of Directors of the Hospitals of Lyon and at the Lyon City Council. His loyalty to his country was absolute, whatever the ruling regime may be. He fist served in the army in 1880 (at the age of 18), and after the onset of WWI, at the age of 52, he wished to be mobilized again. During the war, he dedicated an enormous effort both to treating soldiers personally at the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital in Lyon, as well as making massive donations to the army, ranging from vaccinations to bandages to radiography exams. After the Nazi occupation of France and the establishment of the collaborationist Vichy regime under Marshal Philippe Pétain (from July 1940 to August 1944), Lumière’s loyalty did not seem to change in the very least. In a letter published in Le Petit Comtois, on November 15, 1940, Louis Lumière quoted (and fully endorsed) Auguste’s exalting remarks on the “incomparable prestige, the indomitable courage, the youthful ardor of Marshal Pétain, and his sense of reality that must save our homeland.”[clx] Furthermore, Auguste was quoted as saying in that letter that “In order to achieve that desirable era of European harmony, it is obviously necessary that the conditions imposed by the victor do not produce the ferment of irrevocable hostility against him. And no one could better achieve this goal than our wonderful Head of State, assisted by Pierre Laval, who has already given us evidence of his vision, his ability and his dedication to the real interests of the country.” In July 1941, Auguste became a member of the patronage committee of the pro-collaborationist, “anti-Bolshevik” Legion of French Volunteers (Légion des Volontaires Français) affiliated with the French Popular Party (Parti Populaire Français) led by Jacques Doriot. He was noted by the party officials as “our friend at the Municipal Council of Lyon.”[clxi] However, it should be noted that the main bulk of Lumière’s scientific work was produced in the 1930s, before the time of Vichy. In the period 1940-1944, Lumière, then in his late 70s-early 80s, continued to research and publish, though on a greatly diminished scale, essentially going “underground.” The verbal support of the ruling Vichy regime may have been an act necessary to sustain his long-established social status and ensure the continuation of his research. After the liberation, his social prestige did not diminish either. Thus, the firm socio-economic foundations, the social prestige and prosperity, the advocacy of stability in all spheres, the loyalty to any social regime currently in place (what may be termed ‘adaptive conservatism’) were inseparable concomitants of Auguste Lumière’s life-extensionist enterprise.
To match Auguste Lumière’s political conservatism, his scientific theory may be seen as conservative as well. Lumière often described himself as a medical “innovator” struggling against the “ostracism” of the “dogmatic” medical establishment. He saw himself as an heir to the rebellious Austro-Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), whose sound hygienic advice on anti-sepsis met with fierce opposition and persecutions by the medical guild.[clxii] But, in fact, Lumière’s medical theory and practice were based on the most ancient and widespread medical tradition of all – the “Humoralism.” For thousands of years, the balance and stability of different body liquids (or “humors”) was seen as the necessary condition for health and longevity. The balance of the three “doshas” (humors) was sought in Ayurveda. The balance of the bodily fluids, of the five elements, or of the soft and flowing “yin” and the rigid and abrupt “yang” was sought in traditional Chinese medicine. The “Four humors” corresponding to the “Four elements” needed to be in equilibrium according to the teachings of Empedocles, Hippocrates and Galen. The balance of the four humors was just as much desired by medieval physicians worldwide, from Avicenna in Persia to Arnold of Villanova in Italy. And the alchemists searched for the “philosopher’s stone” whose function was to restore the balance and stability of bodily elements and fluids.[clxiii] Auguste Lumière’s most ambitious and pervasive project was “The Renaissance of the Humoral Medicine.”[clxiv]
In La Renaissance de la Médecine Humorale (1935), Lumière reviewed the earlier humoralist tradition: from Hippocrates and Galen through Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580-1664) and Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) to Sigismond Jaccoud (1830-1913). According to Lumière, the classical “four humors” – the blood, the phlegm (pituita or mucus), the yellow bile, and the black bile – are nothing more than “views of the spirit,” that is, theoretical or operational constructs that do not correspond to physiological reality, to the actual content and properties of body fluids. Nonetheless, Lumière did emphasize the enormous importance of liquids in physiology. This importance, according to him, was almost entirely overlooked by the triumphant contemporary “solidist” paradigm in biomedicine. Contemporary cytology, histology, microbiology, pathology and anatomy, Lumière claimed, considered almost exclusively rigid structures without due regard to changes in the liquid medium.
It was Lumière’s task to revive the humoralist tradition, to create a new “scientific humoralism” that would focus not only on blood, but on liquids throughout the body, especially intracellular and interstitial liquids. Unlike the classical “hypothetical” humoralism, the new “scientific humoralism” was to be based on empirical observations, on measurements of the liquids’ density, pH, viscosity, surface tension, electric conduction, light refraction, John Tyndall’s and John Rayleigh’s particle light scattering, the biochemical content analysis of the salts, proteins, lipoids, urea, pigments, glucose, serological reactions, etc. Despite the modern methods, Lumière’s theory can be easily traced back to the ancient concepts of the “congestion” of humors, of the prevalence of “earth” over “water” or “rigidity” over “fluidity” in the humors’ composition, and most importantly to the concept of their stable “equilibrium.” Lumière admitted that progress can only build and improve on ancient notions (and therefore the study of medical history has a practical utility).
As for the majority of life-extensionist authors discussed so far, for Lumière, the key concepts were “balance,” “equilibrium,” “stability” and “fixity.” He just introduced other constituents of “equilibrium,” different from the equilibrium of “essential elements” in Roger Bacon, Paracelsus and other alchemists, or the equilibrium of “cell types” in Metchnikoff, Steinach, Voronoff and great many other life-extensionist physiologists in the first quarter of the century. Instead, Lumière’s theory considered the equilibrium and stability of cell colloids – dispersed liquid suspensions of macro-molecules (particularly proteins), or micelloids (colloid droplets). And this is the gist of his theory: When the colloids are stable and balanced (maintained dispersed in suspension), this state is characteristic of health and vitality; but when the colloids become unstable or imbalanced, they precipitate and flocculate – and this is the state of pathology and aging.[clxv] For Lumière, at the infancy of molecular biology, the colloids were essentially blobs of matter that “congest” or “dissolve,” with molecular composition and mechanisms unknown.[clxvi] Nonetheless, he was able to detect the colloids’ “stability” or “perturbations” and incorporated that knowledge into a vast explanatory apparatus and therapeutic methodology, including anti-aging strategies.
In the 1920s-1930s, the entropic transformation and condensation (hysteresis) of cell colloids (chiefly represented by proteins), forming flocculates and precipitates that clog the cell machinery, was a dominant theory of aging. It was first proposed in 1913 by the Romanian gerontologist Georges Marinesco (Metchnikoff’s long-time scientific opponent) and developed by the Czech physiologist Vladislav Růžička (Ruzicka) who published a series of articles on the subject in the 1920s.[clxvii] However, Marinesco and Ruzicka largely considered the process of colloid condensation, and hence aging and dying, to be quite inexorable, even though they did attempt to retard the process, Ruzicka by using lecithin as a “protective colloid” and Marinesco by using hormonal supplements. Lumière took a more proactive approach, both with regard to acute and chronic diseases, and the aging process. According to Lumière, during the process of normal aging, the colloids become unstable and precipitate (the internal cause of deterioration), but the process can be greatly hastened by diseases (external causes). Therefore, the task of life prolongation, according to Lumière, must consist in combating diseases, macrobiotic health regimens, and rejuvenating interventions proper, all pursuing the same objective – the “stabilization” of cell colloids.[clxviii] Lumière’s medical theories and practices, especially in the field of anti-aging, now seem to be almost entirely forgotten. Even in his own time, only one of his books, Tuberculosis, Infection, Heredity (1933), was translated into English, and none other since. Hence, a brief exposition is in order.
One of Lumière’s favorite “stabilizing substances” (essentially emulsifiers) was Magnesium Hyposulfite (Mg-S2O3), an anti-shock substance, capable of “reestablishing humoral equilibrium” and “inhibiting the disorganization of colloids, with all the cortege of disorders this entails.” It was also supposed to exert a general “desensitizing” (immunizing or tempering) effect on the entire body.[clxix] A wide variety of other “desensitizing” and “stabilizing” agents were tested and clinically applied by Lumière: “Anti-bacterial desensitization” (the regular immunization by specific antigens, e.g. Koch bacillus extracts), “Auto-hemotherapy” (injection of the patient’s own blood, presumably exerting “desensitizing” effects), as well as a wide assortment of metal compounds: magnesium benzoate, copper glycocholate, sodium undecylate, etc. etc. A special place was reserved for compounds of gold, partly realizing the ancient dream of alchemists. Chrysotherapy, using salts of gold, such as Allochrisine, was employed to stabilize innumerable “humoral imbalances” (and gold particles are still used today in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases, even in “nano-medicine”[clxx]). “Granulotherapy” or “Anthrotherapy” employed small carbon or other particles, not just to absorb toxins, but to produce a “mild mechanical irritation” in order to achieve general desensitization and stimulate phagocytosis. Changing the blood volume was yet another mechanical means to influence the colloidal state. Changing fluid pressure would change the vasomotor sensitivity to the pressure of flocculates, and consequently affect the sensitivity or immunity to shock. Accordingly, the most ancient methods of “balancing the humors” – the blood-letting or water intake – remained in the arsenal and were given a new rationale: “When the quantity [of blood] is augmented or diminished,” Lumière wrote, “the phenomena of shock are no longer produced or greatly attenuated, which confirms the capital importance of vasomotor activity.” Yet another therapy dear to Lumière’s heart was “negative ionization,” using the “aero-ionization lamp” introduced by the Russian biophysicist Alexander Chizhevsky in 1919. In Lumière’s view, negative ions presumably stabilize the colloids’ electrical charge. Endocrine extracts too were employed for colloids’ stabilization, for maintaining the “equilibrium of humors.”
By the time Lumière was writing La Renaissance de la Médecine Humorale (1935, with the second edition appearing in 1937) and Les Horizons de la Médecine (1937), sulfamides (sulfa-drugs, such as “Prontosil”) were just discovered by Gerhard Domagk in Germany (c. 1935) and successfully put to use against streptococcal infections. Lumière immediately delved into the testing of the new substance.[clxxi] He emphasized that the sulfamides do not exert their anti-bacterial action in vitro (as regular antiseptics do), but only in the entire organism. Somehow the organism’s internal environment becomes refractive to the spread of the infection (presumably due to preventing streptococci encapsulation in the body and facilitating their capturing and destruction by phagocytosis). Therefore, Lumière’s central thesis was that just attempting to destroy bacteria, the “microbe-hunting” that had prevailed in the “solidist” medical paradigm, is not sufficient to combat infectious diseases. Rather, a very fruitful method would be the “modification” of the internal environment, the organism’s “terrain,” so as to make it resistant to the spread of pathogens. Substances like sulfamides, as well as the thioderivatives of gold, “granulotherapy,” “auto-hemotherapy,” in fact all the interventions he employed, were designed to make the internal terrain refractive to change, to achieve “humoral equilibrium” and “fixity.”
As discussed so far, Lumière’s main efforts were dedicated to combating acute and chronic diseases by chemical means, by the injection of “humor stabilizing” or “desensitizing” substances for the elimination of the “external causes” that hasten our untimely end. But health regimens for the prolongation of life and rejuvenating interventions proper, too played a considerable part in his pursuits. In Sénilité et Rajeunissement, Lumière gave practical advice on “how to prolong the existence.” In fact, he briefly recapitulated and endorsed the earlier recommendations given by the chair of the Faculty of Forensic Medicine in Lyon, one of the founders of the field of forensic medicine, Alexandre Lacassagne (1843-1924) in La Verte Vieillesse (The Green Old Age, 1924), the suggestions made by the nutrition scientist Jean Frumusan in La cure de rajeunissement. Le devoir, la possibilité et les moyens (Rejuvenation: The Duty, The Possibility and the Means of Regaining Youth, 1923), and by the centenarian president of the French Academy of Medicine Alexandre Guéniot (1832-1935) in Pour Vivre Cent Ans. L’Art de Prolonger ses Jours (To Live a Century: The Art of Prolonging the Days, 1931). The recommendations have not changed much since the days of the early life-extensionist hygienists: Hufeland, Cornaro, or even Hippocrates. Lumière emphasized the importance of sufficient sleep, skin care and baths, moderate work and exercise, moderation in food and drink, sexual moderation (in accordance to the old French proverbs that “Each sacrifice to Venus is a spade of earth over the old man’s grave” and “A good cook and a young female are two enemies of the aged”), the “resistance to passions” generally. Moderation – the watchword of all conservatives – was seen as the key to longevity. Lumière was only too eager to affirm Lacassagne’s dictum that “sobriety is the only recipe for a long life” or Hippocrates’ prescript “Work, food, drink, sleep and love – all in small measure.”[clxxii] Perhaps the only novel element, introduced by Lumière into the discussion of longevity regimens, was his insistence that these regimens fully agree with his colloidal theory, with his reinterpretation of the “stabilization of humors.” In Lumière’s theory, moderate nutrition minimizes colloidal “disturbances”; exercise acts to “desensitize” the body to stress; and rest allows the colloids to “stabilize.”[clxxiii] Mental equilibrium was related to physiological equilibrium.[clxxiv]
In addition to exploring therapies for age-related diseases and longevity regimens, Lumière also carefully investigated the rejuvenation methods proposed up-to-date (Sénilité et Rajeunissement, 1932). According to Lumière, nothing in theory precludes the possibility of reversing the detrimental changes of aging or prevents artificial life-extension. To illustrate the possibility of rejuvenation, Lumière drew an analogy between aging and disease. Both derive from an “imbalance” of colloids, and as a person can be cured of disease and reverted to “balance” and normal functioning, the reversion from a state of aging may not be dissimilar:[clxxv]
Consider a diseased individual suffering from a serious infectious disease… His tissues are dehydrated, skin wrinkles, he loses his strength, his sexual appetites, he assumes the appearance of an old person, but the moment the infection is suppressed, the person begins to gain weight, his wrinkles disappear, his strength returns, he regains all former faculties, in summary, he is rejuvenated.
Even though, Lumière admitted, the current state of knowledge does not yet allow us to practically accomplish the goal of rejuvenation or even point a definite path toward it, after an extensive research the hope may become a reality. Lumière recognized current limitations, but there appeared to be no intractable barriers to overcoming them. The path to rejuvenation, he believed, would lie in the “stabilization” of cell colloids, “inhibiting the destruction of the colloidal structure that occurs through precipitation of proteins, on the one hand, and arresting the evolution of micelloids toward flocculation, on the other,” or else adding “in place of used up materials, new colloids and thus conferring on colloid-generating cells a new power of multiplication.”[clxxvi]
The (endocrine) rejuvenation methods developed thus far, according to Lumière, even though not very effective, offered promising directions.[clxxvii] Lumière reviewed recent advances in rejuvenative therapy: the injection of sex gland extracts by Brown-Séquard, vasoligation by Steinach, sex gland transplantations by Voronoff, chemical sympathectomy by Karl Doppler (a development of René Leriche’s sympathectomy), the transfusion of young blood by Paul Busquet and Ottmar Wilhelm, and the injection of testicular blood serum by Francesco Cavazzi. Lumière was quite critical of these attempts: their results were said to be, in most cases, of a short duration and rather inconsistent among different individuals. The precise calibration of these interventions remained elusive. However, according to Lumière, these techniques provided a proof of principle: by impregnating the organism with sex hormones, it appeared possible to increase cellular growth and proliferation, the only processes which, according to Lumière, could bring about the renovation of cell colloids. It is this continuous renovation of colloids during cell growth and proliferation that explains, in Lumière’s view, the immortality of protozoa and germ cells. The “uneven distribution” of colloids during cell division in multicellular organisms explains cell differentiation, whereas in immortal cells the colloids are distributed “evenly” and are capable of eternal renovation, yet essentially maintaining the “fixed” form of the organism.[clxxviii]
Despite the general optimism regarding the future of rejuvenation techniques, Lumière broke away from the “rejuvenators” of the 1920s, such as Voronoff, Steinach and Doppler. The dissent manifested in the criticism and skepticism of the actual effectiveness of their methods, and in the fact that hormone replacements played only a very minor part in Lumière’s clinical practice. But perhaps the strongest point of departure was Lumière’s withdrawal from the mechanistic reductionism that underscored the majority of rejuvenation techniques. Thus, the grandmaster of French rejuvenators, Serge Voronoff, spoke of the “essential mechanism of our body” where “each organ performs its part,” the thyroid gland provides “the brain-motor’s ignition spark,” all the endocrine glands are “wonderful little factories” that “regulate the action of each organ” and, when some of these controls fail, the body is “put out of gear” and disintegrates. The sex glands, the main object of rejuvenating interventions, are akin to a battery, supplying the body with “vital energy.” The removal of particular parts brings about disarray and death, while their replacement provides new “sources of energy,” reestablishes the “controls” and restores the body’s “equilibrium of functions.” Hence, a major task of rejuvenative medicine is to establish “a stock of spare parts for the human machine.” A central place in Voronoff’s writings was reserved for anatomical and histological examinations, for detailing the surgical technique, which conformed to what Lumière called the “solidist” approach, rearranging the solid parts of the mechanism.[clxxix] Indeed, Voronoff attributed great importance to the “psychic” effects of the grafting operation, but only to demonstrate how a material, “mechanistic” interference positively affects the mental sphere: improving intelligence, productivity, interest in life. But the opposite influence, from the mind onto the body, was thoroughly depreciated. Such mind-over-body effects would obscure the results of treatment and had to be ruled out.
Lumière’s approach was quite the contrary: not only did he emphasize the importance of purely psychological motivation for longevity, but the body itself was seen as much more than a combination of its parts. In Sénilité et Rajeunissement, Lumière wrote:[clxxx]
The most important [characteristic of living beings] consists in the prodigious faculty of synthesis that only the living cells possess and that does not appear in any measure and in any degree in other molecular arrangements… Experience and observation, unaffected by all the reasoning of logicians, demonstrate that the properties of a substance essentially depend on the arrangement, the assemblage, the aggregation of atoms and molecules that compose it, and that these assemblages give birth, out of all the pieces, to novel properties that are present in no way and in no degree in the constituent parts.
Lumière’s model of the body just could not be easily broken down into parts, because it was mainly composed of “balanced fluids.” The therapeutic implications of this “holistic” theory followed.
In 1936, the Hungarian/Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye, the founder of stress physiology and the great authority among all subsequent proponents of the “holistic” approach, published his concept of the “General Adaptation Syndrome,” describing a non-specific reaction of the organism as a whole to a variety of perturbations. (The direct implications of this concept for longevity research, as envisioned by Selye, will be discussed later on.) Yet, the notions of non-specificity were no news to Lumière by 1935 (in fact they were no news to Dumontpallier in 1889). For Lumière, the organism’s capability for a non-specific response – that can be manifested in either “shock” or increased “resistance,” depending on the dose of the “nocuous agent” and the degree of the organism’s “sensitivity” – was the basis for his medical theory and practice.[clxxxi] In Lumière’s theory, a local change in colloid density (flocculation) could affect the entire “fluidic” system of the body. Moreover, all the influences of colloid “precipitates” and “flocculates” were linked to and responded by the cardiovascular and central nervous systems throughout the body, as the precipitates exerted their “mechanical irritation on the vascular sympathetic nerve terminals.” Much in the same way, the “desensitizing” or “stabilizing” pharmaceuticals that Lumière employed, were supposed to affect the entire body. In addition, Lumière insisted, all therapy should be multi-faceted or “polyvalent”:[clxxxii]
One grand principle must dominate the methods of treatment of chronic functional afflictions: in pathological states, the disequilibrium and the instability of humors depend on accidents that have multiple causes; with rare exceptions, the stabilizing and curative therapy directed against them cannot achieve its goal except when it addresses simultaneously all the causes, that is to say, it must be “polyvalent” in order to be completely efficient…. [It is necessary] to remedy, in the same time, all the dysfunctions and eliminate all the factors that are involved in their production.
Both Voronoff and Lumière sought “equilibrium” and “fixity.” According to Lumière, “the great principle of life appears to be fixity” that must be maintained in all life forms, from individual cells to organisms, to species to societies.[clxxxiii] The task of therapy, for Lumière as well as for Voronoff, consisted in maintaining the fixity, safeguarding it against catastrophe or degenerative change. But, paradoxically, in the quest for “fixity,” in the struggle against formidable change, both scientists became great medical innovators, introducing new “stabilizing” treatments that may appear unorthodox even by contemporary standards.
Yet, an important difference may be pointed out between Lumière and Voronoff. In Lumière, the “vital equilibrium” appears to be much more complex than Voronoff’s “human machine.” In Lumière’s vision, the equilibrium must involve the responses of the body as a whole, including diverse environmental and psychological factors. Compared to Voronoff, Lumière was much more willing to admit to his almost complete ignorance of these intricacies:[clxxxiv]
If, generally, we perceive the existence of a relation between matter and intelligence, we are completely ignorant of the mechanisms that govern this relation, and the cause for psychic equilibrium completely evades us. Not only in this order of phenomena has the vital equilibrium remained an enigma: the processes of the regulation of all organic functions, the thermal, the respiratory, the cardiac, etc…. remain entirely obscure. We are ignorant!
It was perhaps this realization of the immense complexity of the “vital equilibrium,” of integrating elements that could not be readily “removed” or “supplemented,” that contributed to Lumière’s withdrawal from the current rejuvenation methods, and caused him to seek solace in anticipating the results of “future research.”
Intriguingly, despite the humility before the grandeur of the “organism as a whole,” Lumière remained a “therapeutic activist” and “scientific optimist” to the end of his nonagenarian life. A similar coexistence of therapeutic and scientific optimism with the great “holistic” awe before the complexity and wholeness of the human being, in his/her infinite connectedness to the society and the universe, is salient in the work of another French contemporary longevity researcher and seeker of “equilibrium,” a chief authority among both reductionist surgeons and holistic philosophers – Alexis Carrel.
16. The perpetuation of the whole – Alexis Carrel (1873-1944)
The works of Alexis Carrel, the Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine of 1912, were an inspiration to the life-extensionists in the first half of the twentieth century. The Nobel Prize was given “in recognition of his work on vascular suture and the transplantation of blood vessels and organs."[clxxxv] Carrel pioneered the technique of blood vessels suture (anastomosis) while working at Auguste Lumière’s laboratory in Lyon in the early 1900s. In 1904 he immigrated to the US, and continued this research at the University of Chicago, before moving on in 1906 to the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York where he remained for most of his career. During WWI, he stayed in France and served as a major in the French Army Medical Corps, deploying a novel antiseptic solution and irrigation apparatus to treat battle wounds (developed in collaboration with Henry Dakin), and studying wound-healing and regeneration together with Lecomte du Noüy. At the war’s end, in 1918, he returned to the Rockefeller Institute and continued to work there until he was forced to resign in 1939 due to the mandatory retirement age (set by the Institute at 65). Even while at the Rockefeller Institute, he never severed ties with France, and spent all his summers in study and contemplation at his private island of Saint Gildas, in Brittany, at the shores of Northern France. In 1939, he again returned to France, where on November 17, 1941, he established and presided over the “Fondation Française pour l’Étude de Problèmes Humains” (the French Foundation for the Study of Human Problems) – the world’s first multi-disciplinary research foundation dedicated to the study and amelioration of the entirety of human problematics: from experimental biology to psychology to sociology to “prevention of precocious aging.” This establishment, that was initially decreed and sponsored by the Vichy government and Marshal Pétain personally, was since 1945 transformed into the Institut National d'Études Démographiques (INED, The National Institute for Demographic Studies). Carrel died on November 5, 1944, after the liberation of France by the allied forces, awaiting trial for collaboration. Controversy continues as to the degree of Carrel’s “collaboration.” Some researchers suggest it was purely nominal, aimed to ensure the operation of the Foundation.[clxxxvi] At any rate, he was never a political dissident. Called “the Frenchman” in the US and “the American” in France, often highly judgmental of both the French and American societies, he remained a patriot and a prominent, highly respected and well-established figure in both countries, closely tied to both cultures, and a crucial contributor to both the American and French life-extensionist thought.
Carrel’s major contribution to life-extensionism was his experimental demonstration that body parts could be replaced as they wear out, just as the worn-out parts of a machine could be replaced for its sustained maintenance. Carrel’s initial success in blood vessels anastomosis that earned him the Nobel Prize – including the development of aseptic conditions (as infection was a major cause of thrombosis and operation failure), the performance of suture on all layers of the vessels, and the development of the “triangulation method” of suture – were crucial for successful organ transplantations, paving the way for all subsequent grafting operations in humans, from Serge Voronoff’s “rejuvenation by grafting” onward. Using the perfected anastomosis techniques, since the early 1900s, Carrel pioneered the transplantation of kidneys, limbs, thyroid, ovaries and heart in animals. The preservation of organs for transplantation was vital, and Carrel was among the first to achieve this by cold storage of blood vessels and entire organs.[clxxxvii]
In Carrel’s vision, tissues and organs for transplantation could be artificially grown. For that purpose, around 1910, he started a series of experiments on growing tissues, attempting to find the culture medium conditions and stimulants for their speedy regeneration and indefinite maintenance and growth, pioneering the field of tissue engineering. His famous experiment on culturing the chicken embryonic heart tissue was started in 1912.[clxxxviii] That tissue culture (in fact composed of fibroblast connective tissue, rather than muscle tissue) was maintained in continuous growth by Carrel’s assistant Albert Ebeling until 1946. Thus the longevity of the tissue exceeded many times the life-span of the organism from which it was taken. The tissue culture appeared to be virtually immortal. The finding of the somatic tissue’s “potential immortality” was a tremendous inspiration for the life-extensionist movement. Between the 1910s and 1950s, there appeared to be not a single author writing about longevity who did not mention that outcome from Carrel’s lab (Metchnikoff, Voronoff, Steinach, Kammerer, Lumière, Metalnikov, Bogomolets, etc. etc.). As somatic cells appeared to be potentially immortal, the organism composed of them, it was believed, could become potentially immortal as well (the tenet alternately disputed and reaffirmed later on).[clxxxix]
Even though growing entire organs was not feasible at the time, Carrel succeeded in maintaining existing organs outside of the body. He began this research in 1912 with sustaining a “visceral organism” – a system of animal heart, lungs, liver, stomach, intestines and kidneys – in an artificial medium. But the highest success was achieved in the 1930s, thanks to the development of the “Perfusion Pump” in collaboration with Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974). Lindbergh, the aviator celebrated for his first trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927, offered Carrel his engineering expertise in 1930 to build a perfusion pump, capable of providing a flow of nutrients and oxygen to excised organs. By 1935, the perfusion apparatus (the “Lindbergh Pump”) was perfected, applying a more “natural” pulsating pressure to circulate the perfusion fluid, and having effectively solved the problem of infection by using a sterile, filtered system of air and nutrient medium supply to the organs. A wide variety of organs were thus maintained: heart, kidney, spleen, pancreas, fallopian tubes, thyroid, and more.[cxc] This system was an essential step in a series of developments that eventually led to the creation of “heart-lung” and “dialysis” machines, making open-heart surgery possible, and generally enabling the maintenance of organs for transplantation. Bur Carrel’s vision extended further.
In 1938, Carrel and Lindbergh coauthored The Culture of Organs, where they described the technique, Lindbergh specifying the perfusion apparatus, its assembly and operation, Carrel elaborating on perfusing media, organ preparations, their physiological behavior outside of the body, and the practical purposes of these studies. The Culture of Organs gives the following descriptions of “The Ultimate Goal” of this research. Using out-of-body organs, natural, non-rejectable bio-pharmaceuticals can be manufactured. Furthermore, diseased organs can be removed from the body, treated and then re-implanted:[cxci]
Human organs would manufacture in vitro the substances [hormones and anti-bodies] supplied today to patients by horses or rabbits. … We can perhaps dream of removing diseased organs from the body and placing them in the Lindbergh pump as patients are placed in a hospital. Then they could be treated far more energetically than within the organism, and if cured replanted in the patient. … The replantation would offer no difficulty, as surgical techniques for the suture of blood vessels and the transplantation of organs and limbs were developed long ago [by Carrel].
And perhaps crucially, by examining extracorporeally cultured organs, the optimal nutrition requirements can be established for each organ, and these needs can be provided to achieve the organs’ optimal growth, regeneration and organic equilibrium within the body.
Contemporary press further exaggerated the potential applications of the “Culture of Organs,” writing about the possible artificial maintenance of a brain, of an entire human embryo or even of an adult organism, about Carrel and Lindbergh introducing “immortality in a physical sense” and revealing “the secret of life itself.”[cxcii] But Carrel’s own vision for the possibilities of life-extension, described in his own words, was grand enough. Not only could worn-out parts of the body be removed, treated and replaced, but the aging process of each and every organ could be understood and countered through appropriate nutrition. Carrel announced:[cxciii]
A new era has opened. Now anatomy is capable of apprehending bodily structures in the fullness of their reality, of understanding how the organs form the organism, and how the organism grows, ages, heals its wounds, resists disease, and adapts itself with marvelous ease to changing environment. The ultimate goal of the culture of organs is to obtain this new knowledge and to pursue it through the complexity of its unpredictable consequences.
Carrel’s longevity research was not exhausted by tissue cultures or organ transplantations. He built a giant “Mousery” where, by 1933, over 50,000 mice were kept. Their longevity was studied and manipulated by nutrition, lodging conditions, exercise and rest, heredity, chemicals, etc. (After 1933 the project funding was terminated, presumably because the data base became too extensive to manage.[cxciv]) Carrel also conducted experiments with long-term drying and reviving of small animals, mostly rotifers. (Similar experiments were conducted at the Rockefeller Institute by Jacques Loeb.) Speculations abounded, fostered by Carrel himself, about a possible future induction of a similar “resting state” in humans, perhaps to preserve them for centuries.[cxcv] In 1925, Carrel attempted to revivify a mummy.[cxcvi] He was keenly interested in the possibility of lowering the overall metabolic rate as a means for life-prolongation. Lindbergh was equally inspired by the idea, having heard stories of the Yogis capable of lowering their body temperature, breathing and heart rate, entering a state of “suspended animation.”[cxcvii] Yet Lindbergh’s and Carrel’s attempts to induce such a state by artificial changes of temperature, pressure, oxygen and CO2 levels, failed. (Nowadays, reversible drug-induced or hypothermic coma, used for recuperation, is a well-established medical practice.[cxcviii])
Carrel’s interest in life-extension was encompassing, and was fully shared by Lindbergh (who shared many of Carrel’s philosophical views). Nonetheless, Carrel seems to hardly merit the title of an “Immortalist,” given him in David Friedman’s biography.[cxcix] In the first half of the 20th century, very few real “immortalists,” the true believers in the possibility of physical immortality for humans, could be found, except perhaps for the Russian Nikolay Fedorov and the American Charles Asbury Stephens. The majority of life-extensionist authors of the period did have some limits to their aspirations (usually ranging from a century life-span as a short-term goal to 150-200 years as a longer-term project). In 1935, Carrel published L'Homme, Cet Inconnu – Man, the Unknown – “an intelligible synthesis” of “information on human beings,” where he made his views on life-extension explicit.[cc]
Carrel had no illusions about the current abilities of medical science to significantly extend the human life-span or restore youth: “we have not succeeded in increasing the duration of our existence. A man of forty-five has no more chance of dying at the age of eighty years now than in the last century.”[cci] Carrel was quite critical about the earlier attempts of rejuvenation by Steinach and Voronoff (that were in fact made possible by Carrel’s success in developing the blood vessel anastomosis technique). He acknowledged that the rejuvenation operations might have been “followed by an improvement in the general condition and the sexual functions of the patients.” But he considered these results as “doubtful” and “not lasting.” He did not believe Voronoff’s sex gland grafts could take (due to rejection) and explained the apparent reinvigoration by a degeneration of the grafted gland in the body that “may set free certain secretory products” for a short period.[ccii] He never attributed to the degeneration of sex glands a causative role in aging, but saw it as a consequent or concomitant of general deterioration. According to Carrel, modern human beings may have become more skillful at keeping youthful appearances, but looks are not tantamount to a true restoration of youth or longevity.[cciii]
Carrel summed up all preceding attempts at life-prolongation and rejuvenation as a failure: “The greatest desire of men is for eternal youth. From Merlin down to Cagliostro, Brown-Séquard, and Voronoff, charlatans and scientists have pursued the same dream and suffered the same defeat.”[cciv] Moreover, according to Carrel, there are principal restrictions to radical life-prolongation or immortality for humans. He saw senescence as unavoidably originating from the very organization of the human body, from the inherent disaccord between its differentiated parts. He, as well as the majority of contemporary longevity researchers, perceived the fixity of the internal environment and the harmonious interrelation of the parts of the organism as the necessary conditions for longevity. But he realized how difficult, almost impossible, it is to maintain such a harmony. Therefore, Carrel concluded: “Man will never tire of seeking immortality. He will not attain it, because he is bound by certain laws of his organic constitution. … Never will he vanquish death. Death is the price he has to pay for his brain and his personality.”[ccv]
All these difficulties, however, did not mean that some extents of life-prolongation or rejuvenation would be impossible and that longevity research should be abandoned:[ccvi]
It is probable that neither Steinach nor Voronoff has ever observed true rejuvenation. But their failure does not by any means signify that rejuvenation is for ever impossible to obtain. We can believe that a partial reversal of physiological time will become realizable. … If an old man were given the glands of a stillborn infant and the blood of a young man, he would possibly be rejuvenated. Many technical difficulties remain to be overcome before such an operation can be undertaken. We have no way of selecting organs suitable to a given individual. There is no procedure for rendering tissues capable of adapting themselves to the body of their host in a definitive manner. But the progress of science is swift. With the aid of the methods already existing, and of those which will be discovered, we must pursue the search for the great secret.
Far from being daunted by the impotence of contemporary longevity science, Carrel perceived its shortcomings as a hurdle to be overcome, a powerful stimulus for further, more extensive, research. “A better knowledge of the mechanisms of physiological duration,” obtained through empirical studies of heredity and environment, nutrition and life-style, “could bring a solution of the problem of longevity.”[ccvii]
According to Carrel, such research could only be conducted in a cooperative manner (though he believed a single person was needed to synthesize the data), in a well-equipped, well funded, truly interdisciplinary scientific institution, capable of continuous studies for a very long period:[ccviii]
Our life is too short. Many experiments should be conducted for a century at the least. Institutions should be established in such a way that observations and experiments commenced by one scientist would not be interrupted by his death. Such organizations are still unknown in the realm of science. … Institutions, in some measure immortal, like religious orders, which would allow the uninterrupted continuation of an experiment as long as might be necessary, should compensate for the too short duration of the existence of individual observers.
Carrel attempted to establish such an institution in the US, while working at the Rockefeller Institute (where his experiments would be discontinued and he himself forced to retire in 1939 due to age limitations). But the idea came to partial fruition in France with the establishment of the “Fondation Française pour l’Étude de Problèmes Humains.” As will be elaborated in the following sections, the increasing institutional banding together of longevity researchers, from Eastern Europe to the US and France, was a definitive mark of the 1930s.[ccix]
Institutions were a means to provide the necessary permanence, stability and continuity for aging and longevity research. As Carrel recurrently noted, life-prolonging interventions in humans are impossible to ascertain except over a period of several decades. And generally, permanence, stability and continuity appeared to be the driving concepts in Carrel’s reasoning about the longevity of both biological and social organisms.[ccx] According to Carrel, “the law of constancy” is fundamental for any sustainable system: “when a system is in equilibrium, and a factor tends to modify the equilibrium, there occurs a reaction that opposes this factor.” In biological systems, “a steady state, and not an equilibrium, persists with the help of physiological processes.” In summary, “steadiness of the inner medium is, without any doubt, indispensable for the survival of the organism.”[ccxi]
At the first glance, it may appear that Carrel valorized progress, and the effort necessary to achieve progress, over constancy: “The law of effort is still more important than the law of the constancy of the organic states.” Furthermore, “the physiological and mental progress of the individual depends on his functional activity and on his efforts.” To survive, the organism needs to adapt to a changing environment, and this adaptive ability is exercised by effort and exposure to hardships: “the exercise of adaptive functions is as necessary to the development of body and consciousness as physical effort to that of the muscles.” And yet, ultimately, progressive effort becomes subservient to maintaining constancy. Carrel pointed out that “Science has supplied us with means for keeping our intraorganic equilibrium, which are more agreeable and less laborious than the natural processes. …the physical conditions of our daily life are prevented from varying.” Yet, while providing this artificial stability, the natural exercise of the adaptive function, which essentially amounts to an ability to maintain constancy against all odds and changes, should not be discarded: “By doing away with muscular effort in daily life, we have suppressed, without being aware of it, the ceaseless exercise required from our organic systems in order that the constancy of the inner medium be maintained.” The ultimate end of adaptation is to achieve a sustainable equilibrium and constancy under new conditions, to arrive at “permanent modifications of body and consciousness.” Essentially, “Adaptation, considered in its various manifestations and its oneness, appears as an agent of stabilization and organic repair, as the cause of the moulding of organs by function, as the link that integrates tissues and humours in a whole enduring in spite of the attacks of the outer world.”[ccxii]
As a living organism, according to Carrel, needs to be stable, the society too needs to be preserved in a steady state. Carrel devoted extensive passages to advocacy of “progress,” “change,” “reform,” “the remaking of man,” even “revolution.” “We must modify our mode of life and our environment,” he wrote, “even at the cost of a destructive revolution. After all, the purpose of civilization is not the progress of science and machines, but the progress of man.”[ccxiii] But how much change did Carrel really want? Born into a wealthy capitalist family, married into aristocracy, and accepted into the social and scientific elite, Carrel never wished those statuses to disappear. The rhetoric of progress might conceal a deep-seated conservatism, the striving to perpetuate the existing social order. Or more precisely, it was the upper rank of the existing social order, of which Carrel undoubtedly and justly saw himself to be a part, which was in need of perpetuation.
All the “modifications” Carrel spoke of, were intended to prevent the collapse of “civilization,” or rather of its elite stratum, which, according to Carrel, was under a threat of destruction by external or internal nocuous influences.[ccxiv] First of all, “civilization” meant “Western civilization,” synonymous with “civilized races” or “white races,” that needed protection against faster-breading non-whites, as well as against “the newcomers, peasants and proletarians from primitive European countries.” “Their offspring are far from having the value of those who come from the first settlers of North America” and their encroachment on the existing demographics needed to stop. Secondly, the existing class system had to be preserved indefinitely. The classes that have already formed, emerged due to biological differences, and now it was necessary to make the divide permanent:[ccxv]
In democratic countries, such as the United States and France, for example, any man had the possibility during the last century of rising to the position his capacities enabled him to hold. Today, most of the members of the proletarian class owe their situation to the hereditary weakness of their organs and their mind. Likewise, the peasants have remained attached to the soil since the Middle Ages, because they possess the courage, judgment, physical resistance, and lack of imagination and daring which render them apt for this type of life. These unknown farmers … were, despite their great qualities, of a weaker organic and psychological constitution than the medieval barons who conquered the land and defended it victoriously against all invaders. Originally, the serfs and the chiefs were really born serfs and chiefs. Today, the weak should not be artificially maintained in wealth and power. It is imperative that social classes should be synonymous with biological classes.
Thirdly, the society had to be forever male-dominated (to recall, in the US, women were given voting rights in 1920). “Women should receive a higher education, not in order to become doctors, lawyers, or professors, but to rear their offspring to be valuable human beings.” “The differences existing between man and woman” are of “fundamental nature.” Women, therefore, “should not abandon their specific functions.” Fourthly, private property and nuclear family should forever remain the bedrocks of society:[ccxvi]
Modern society must, therefore, allow to all a certain stability of life, a home, a garden, some friends. … It is imperative to stop the transformation of the farmer, the artisan, the artist, the professor, and the man of science into manual or intellectual proletarians, possessing nothing but their hands or their brains….All forms of the proletariat must be suppressed. Each individual should have the security and the stability required for the foundation of a family.
Finally, and perhaps crucially, all the existing hereditary strengths, or traits perceived at the time as strengths, had to be accentuated, and thus carried forward indefinitely: “Modern nations will save themselves by developing the strong. Not by protecting the weak. Eugenics is indispensable for the perpetuation of the strong. A great race must propagate its best elements.”[ccxvii] (Notably, Carrel mainly advocated “voluntary” rather than coercive eugenics. According to him, only the propagation of the “insane” or “feeble-minded” should be forcefully prevented.) Thus, perpetuation was in order for the existing elite, for the group at large, as well as for its individual members, for those who, like Carrel, would merit membership. Carrel wrote:[ccxviii]
We must not yield to the temptation to use blindly for this purpose [of life-prolongation] the means placed at our disposal by medicine. Longevity is only desirable if it increases the duration of youth, and not that of old age. The lengthening of the senescent period would be a calamity. The aging individual, when not capable of providing for himself, is an encumbrance to his family and to the community. If all men lived to be one hundred years old, the younger members of the population could not support such a heavy burden. Before attempting to prolong life, we must discover methods for conserving organic and mental activities to the eve of death. It is imperative that the number of the diseased, the paralysed, the weak, and the insane should not be augmented. Besides, it would not be wise to give everybody a long existence. The danger of increasing the quantity of human beings without regard to their quality is well known. Why should more years be added to the life of persons who are unhappy, selfish, stupid, and useless? The number of centenarians must not be augmented until we can prevent intellectual and moral decay, and also the lingering diseases of old age.
This passage is ambiguous. It can be understood as simply saying that the efforts for life-prolongation should be widely coupled with efforts to improve the quality of life, to make the society as a whole more durable. It can also imply that life-extension per se could cripple western society, and therefore should rather not be attempted. But such an interpretation would contradict Carrel’s life-long persistence at longevity research, his conviction that “we must pursue the search for the great secret.” Or rather, it could be understood, the prolongation of life is to be reserved for a defined upper class, for those who are not “stupid and useless.” In either case, the ultimate goal is the perpetuation of the existing social order, just as the ultimate goal of biomedical intervention is to maintain the constancy of an individual organism.
A researcher at the cutting age of biomedical science, Carrel was very fond of traditional, “natural” ways of life, constantly lamenting the grievances brought in by modernity. For all the discussions of social “progress,” the “perfect society” envisioned by Carrel was a mere emphasis of the circumferential culture, as his vision of medical progress amounted to perfecting the means for sustaining a steady state of the body. For Carrel, the social, biological and psychological realms were not separated. If there could be a general definition of Carrel’s aspirations, it would be the ‘preservation of the whole’ – body, mind and society included. In the 1930s, there was perhaps no stronger proponent of “holism” than Carrel. Even though the term “holism” was first introduced by the South African philosopher and statesman Jan Smuts in 1926, in the book Holism and Evolution, Carrel did not use this specific term. Nonetheless, Man the Unknown was imbued with the thought that the human being is a whole that cannot be reduced to an interrelation of components, that human beings react as a whole to the external environment, that they form a whole of a higher order with the environment, with the “cosmic, economic and psychological milieu,”[ccxix] and that they should be studied and influenced in such an integrity.
The mind becomes an indispensable factor of wholeness.[ccxx] “In disease as in health, body and consciousness, although distinct, are inseparable,” Carrel argued. “The whole consisting of body and consciousness is modifiable by organic as well as by mental factors. Mind and organism commune in man like form and marble in a statue.” Carrel well recognized that the mind is profoundly affected by physiological activities, and those are not restricted to the brain: “In fact, the entire body appears to be the substratum of mental and spiritual energies. Thought is the offspring of the endocrine glands as well as of the cerebral cortex. The integrity of the organism is indispensable to the manifestations of consciousness. Man thinks, invents, loves, suffers, admires, and prays with his brain and all his organs.” Yet, an even stronger emphasis was placed on the effects of mental states on the body: “Man integrates himself by meditation, just as by action.”[ccxxi] Physiological equilibrium, and consequently rejuvenation and increased longevity, can be achieved by such a direct, integrating and balancing control of the mind: “A sort of rejuvenation may be brought about by a happy event, or a better equilibrium of the physiological and psychological functions. Possibly, certain states of mental and bodily well-being are accompanied by modifications of the humours characteristic of a true rejuvenation.”[ccxxii]
The fascination with the power of the mind led Carrel to the uncharted territories of mysticism and faith-healing, the phenomena of “ecstasies, thought transmission, visions of events happening at a distance, and even of levitations.”[ccxxiii] For Carrel, the interest in the paranormal began in the early 1900s. In 1903, he visited Lourdes, a holy site in Southern France, where Virgin Mary was said to have appeared to Saint Bernadette in 1858, and which since then became a place reputed for numerous miraculous cures. Carrel set out on the voyage a skeptic, intent to “examine the facts objectively, just as a patient is examined at a hospital or an experiment conducted in a laboratory.” He returned a believer, as he observed seemingly instantaneous cures of organic disorders – “peritoneal tuberculosis, cold abscesses, osteitis, suppurating wounds, lupus, cancer, etc.”[ccxxiv]
Such an interest could damage Carrel’s fledging career in France, and this was one of the considerations that led to his emigration. Until the mid-1930s, he was little disposed to publicly discuss mysticism, except perhaps among a close circle of friends, members of the “Philosophers Club” in New York, such as Frederic Coudert, Cornelius Clifford and Boris Bakhmeteff, who encouraged him to write the philosophical treatise and to whom Man, the Unknown was dedicated. In 1935, Carrel felt confident enough to widely announce his mystic beliefs, encouraged by the increasing interest in the psychic, occult and miraculous, even among the medical profession.[ccxxv] As per Carrel’s confession, he “does not hesitate to mention mysticity in this book, because he has observed its manifestations.”[ccxxvi] According to Carrel, the control of the mind over the body, or rather the integrated relation of the mind to the universe achieved through spiritual or mystic activity, especially through prayer, could produce immediate and prolonged physiological healing, the restoration and maintenance of the whole:[ccxxvii]
The miracle is chiefly characterized by an extreme acceleration of the processes of organic repair. There is no doubt that the rate of cicatrization of the anatomical defects is much greater than the normal one. The only condition indispensable to the occurrence of the phenomenon is prayer. But there is no need for the patient himself to pray, or even to have any religious faith. It is sufficient that some one around him be in a state of prayer. Such facts are of profound significance. They show the reality of certain relations, of still unknown nature, between psychological and organic processes. They prove the objective importance of the spiritual activities, which hygienists, physicians, educators, and sociologists have almost always neglected to study. They open to man a new world.
How could this mystical and holistic belief in an almost unlimited direct influence of the mind over the body, coexist with Carrel’s scientific methodology, the very reductionist, almost Frankensteinian, assemblage of body parts into a ‘living machine’? A ‘functional personality split’ might be suspected: a reductionist at the lab, Carrel could well be a “holist” among friends and family, plunging into mystic contemplation on holidays and vacations. There could also be a temporal split. Between the early 1900s – mid-1930s, Carrel might have deferred mysticism, being too involved with tissue engineering, and only in the mid-1930s, toward the end of his scientific career, he let the mysticism surface. However, the writing of Man, the Unknown temporally coincided with the construction and testing of the “Perfusion Pump” and the “Culture of Organs,” the very paragons of reductionist biology. In Man, the Unknown, the research of psychic activities and tissue engineering were discussed side by side. Definitely, Carrel perceived no antagonism between the diverse fields of study. No Cartesian mind-body dualism existed for him. Rather, he recognized the existence of many “unities” at different “levels of organization” – from individual molecules, to cells, to tissues and organs, to individual organisms, to mind-body unification in an individual human being, in relation to larger social and, ultimately, cosmic unities.[ccxxviii] He did recognize the necessity for specialists to investigate different levels of organization, some “studying the larger structures resulting from the aggregation and organization of molecules, the cells of the tissues and of the blood – that is, living matter itself,” others focusing on “cells, their ways of association, and the laws governing their relations with their surroundings; the whole made up of the organs and humours; the influence of the cosmic environment on this whole; and the effects of chemical substances on tissues and consciousness.” Carrel did not discard the need for analysis in scientific investigation. What he proposed, however, was that reductionist analysis should not be the only method of study. A larger synthesis is necessary: “We now possess such a large amount of information on human beings that its very immensity prevents us from using it properly. In order to be of service, our knowledge must be synthetic and concise.”[ccxxix] Such a synthesis cannot be restricted to a study of body parts; it must also include higher forms of organization: the organism as a whole, mental activities, society and environment.
This thought really comes to the foreground between the mid-1930s-mid-1940s, in Carrel as well as other prominent contemporary French physicians and life-extension advocates. However, the fact is that with holistic synthesis coming to the foreground, reductionist analysis is displaced to the background. The immense scope of Man, the Unknown, of necessity, makes limited room for any particular field of study. And thus, in Man, the Unknown, the subject of rejuvenation occupies a very restricted corner in the grand edifice of human knowledge. Indeed the preservation of “the whole,” the equilibrium and constancy at different levels of organization – individual and social – is a permeating thought in the book; and mental and social influences are shown as powerful factors for increasing longevity. But the subject of rejuvenation by replacing or rearranging body parts, so prevalent in the former French life-extensionist thought, becomes overshadowed by the recognition of the immensity of other factors, mental, social or environmental, which go beyond the tinkering with organs and tissues. Of such factors of wholeness we have but little knowledge and little control. Thus, the quest for mechanistic rejuvenation ‘dissolves in the whole.’
17. The “Neo-Hippocratic” holistic movement - Official Medicine and Heretical Medicines
On his return to France in 1939, Carrel assumed the leading position in the French holistic medical movement that was increasing in strength in the 1930s and reached its height of influence under the Vichy regime. With forty million francs allocated by the Vichy government to Carrel’s interdisciplinary “French Foundation for the Study of Human Problems” (almost as much as to the National Center for Scientific Research – Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique – CNRS, with about F50M budget), Carrel made many allies. The joint publication Médecine Officielle et Médecines Hérétiques[ccxxx] (Official Medicine and Heretical Medicines) provides a remarkable testimony to the great reinforcement of the holistic medical movement in Vichy France. The book was published in 1945, after the liberation of France and Carrel’s death, but the articles were written in the last years of the Vichy regime. The authors were prominent physicians, some of them members of the French Academy of Sciences and the Medical Academy, heads of medical departments. They were united against the “analytical,” “materialistic,” “mechanistic” and “dehumanizing” approaches in medicine, and unanimous in their advocacy of “synthesis,” treating the human being as “a whole,” with due consideration of his mental or “psychic” activities, “imponderable” factors in healing, the recognition of the patients’ individuality, the integration of an individual with the grander social and physical environment. These emphases are now firmly associated with a “holistic” medical paradigm. The authors of Heretical Medicines did not use the term “holism,” but rather saw themselves as “Neo-Hippocratists.” From the teachings of Hippocrates, they derived the basis for considering the human being as a “whole” in an unbreakable rapport with the environment, with season and place. Following Hippocrates, they sought to maintain a physiological and mental equilibrium, never considering a disease as an entity, but as a temporal imbalance of the equilibrium. The equilibrium, according to them, could be restored not so much by chemicals and operations, but rather by a more “natural” and “moderate” way of life. Depreciating heroic interventions, they strove to assist the “healing power of nature” through adjusting the life-style, and most of all, by cultivating the healing power of the mind. These principles were, according to them, neglected by the “official” or “materialistic” medicine and must be restored. The heretics were on a move to conquer the orthodoxy.
Even though perceiving themselves as dissenters, the ‘heretics’ could not emphasize strongly enough how traditional their views are, their goal being the restoration and development of the old, more “natural” and perennial ways of treatment, in contrast to more modish “materialistic” interventions. As one of the authors, the Marseille surgeon Jean Poucel claimed in the article “La Médecine Naturiste” (The Naturist Medicine):[ccxxxi]
It has not been many years, one remembers, since the rise to grandeur and fall to decadence of many treatments that had raised such great hopes: supplemental nutrition, tuberculines, vaccines, salts of calcium, salts of lime, salts of rare earth elements, salts of gold, etc… But there remain aeration galleries, rest coupled with moderate exercise, varied and fresh diet.
If this was a revolution, it was a conservative one. As in Carrel, increased longevity was mentioned as a goal by most authors, yet the subject was somewhat dissolved in the rather metaphysical discussions of “wholeness.” No specific therapy or element of treatment was given a predominant weight. The more pervasive concern was the general restoration and maintenance of the “wholeness,” of physiological and mental equilibrium, via restoration and maintenance of medical tradition. The reductionist rejuvenation by organotherapy, pioneered by French physicians at the fin-de-siècle, now became thoroughly discarded as an unsubstantiated novelty, as the French physicians made a daring move into “holistic” health-care, sanctified by tradition and return to “natural ways.”
The book opened with an article by the leader of the movement, Alexis Carrel, “Le rôle futur de la Médecine” (The future role of medicine),[ccxxxii] where he briefly reiterated the main tenets of Man, the Unknown: the necessity to treat the human being as a whole, without neglect of the mental sphere, and including the social and physical environment, in order to save the individual and the race. Auguste Lumière was there beside him, summarizing his life-long work on the resurrection of Humoralist Medicine and its results (“La Médecine Humorale et ses Résultats”).[ccxxxiii] Several other authors reinstated the Hippocratic tradition to its proper glory.[ccxxxiv] Dr. Pierre Galimard of Lyon spoke of the Hippocratic tradition and the medicine of correspondences (“La tradition hippocratique et la médecine des correspondances”). According to Galimard, Hippocratism, that “monument of extraordinary duration” teaches us to “unite apparently distant things into a universal harmony,” to seek universal “correspondences or analogies” of the “Microcosm” and the “Macrocosm,” the same “symbolic laws, and the same cycles of formation” that govern all forms of being, and which are united by the “universal spirit.”[ccxxxv] Through seeking symbolic analogies between different forms of creation (minerals, plants and animals), we can hope to extract from them “pure curative powers” that can “renew homologous powers that degenerate in a human being.” From this journey into the medical scholastics of the Middle Ages, Galimard arrived determined to “reconstitute” or “resurrect” the ancient knowledge.
The same desire was expressed by Dr. Marcel Martiny (chief of the Leopold Bellan Hospital in Paris) in “Nouvel Hippocratisme” (New Hippocratism). Martiny was a dedicated champion of Neo-Hippocratism, of that “passionate and controversial medical movement assuming great importance in Europe, and particularly in France.” The Neo-Hippocratic medicine is “at the same time humanistic and scientific,” and is permeated by the “spirit of synthesis.” It is “general,” “imaginative,” “unitary,” tending toward “finalism and vitalism.” According to Martiny, the unity of an individual human being can be understood in terms of biological “types,” correlated to ancient “constitutions.” Together with other contemporary French Neo-Hippocratists – Claude Sigaud, Léon Mac Auliffe, Alfred Thooris, Paul Carton, Louis Corman, René Allendy, René Biot, and Pierre Winter – Martiny constructed a four-pronged physiological typology (the square, of course, being the symbol of stability and equilibrium). The “prevalence” of one of the embryological layers (the endoderm, ectoderm, mesoderm or their balanced state termed the blastoderm), determined the four morphological types, corresponding to four classical or Hippocratic-Galenic humoral constitutions, as well as four “reactive modalities” and ultimately four stages of “racial evolution.”[ccxxxvi] Only when considering the biological types, Martiny proposed, can a human being be treated effectively as an individual and as a whole. Martiny valorized “weak” (homeopathic) therapeutic modalities, acting both on the entire organism and local biological unities, over “strong” and “intermediate” (allopathic) modalities attempting to destroy the agents of damage.[ccxxxvii] In the “weak” modality, the remedy is a catalyst that allows for a full utilization of the ambient natural energy, working through “syntonization” (fine tuning) or “resonance” with existing organic components. With such a utilization of the organism’s own “ambient energy,” Hippocrates’ hope of stimulating Vis Medicatrix Naturae (The healing power of nature) may become realized. And only by utilizing “weak modalities,” including mental affirmations, the individual may remain “exactly the same” and the treatment may become personal.
The Parisian professor Léon Vannier (1880-1963), the founder of the French Society for Homeopathy (1927) and of the Homeopathy Center of France (Paris, 1932), in “La Tradition Scientifique de l’Homœopathie” provided an even stronger advocacy for homeopathy or “homeotherapy.” According to Vannier, the “healing power of nature” can be stimulated in two ways: either “passively” (e.g. by rest) or “actively” (e.g. by exercise or proper nutrition). And bodily equilibrium can be established in two ways of therapy: by agents either contrary or similar to those causing the disease or disequilibrium. Hence, one of the principles of treatment is that of the Opposites, “Contraria Contrariis Curantur” (opposite cures opposite) using allopathic remedies directly antagonistic to agents of the disease, “expunging that which is in excess and supplementing that which is in deficit.” The second principle is that of the Similitude, “Similia Similibus Curantur” (like cures like) employing homeopathic remedies whose action is similar to that of the disease, yet whose application suppresses the disease, effecting immunization.[ccxxxviii] Building on a long historical tradition, from Hippocrates to Samuel Hahnemann, Vannier considered homeopathy as an integral part of Neo-Hippocratism. Neo-Hippocratism was seen as an eclectic and holistic system, where both allopathic (opposite) and homeopathic (similar) treatments have their proper indications, where the body, spirit and soul are perceived as a unity, and where individual “types,” “constitutions” and “temperaments” are taken into account. The cause of disease was sought not only in the “apparent microbial action, but also in the transmutation of the subject, in whom the normal rhythm is troubled through multiple conditions depending on the cosmic, social and professional environment, life-style and nutrition, and finally heredity.”
According to Martiny, Vannier, and most other authors of Heretical Medicines, the Neo-Hippocratic medicine, first and foremost, seeks health in a communion with nature. Thus, Martiny emphasized the importance of “the contact of the body with the air, water and light, moderate and varied nutrition, accompanied by fasting, a harmonious alteration between the activities of the body and of the spirit.” The importance of “Natural Ways” was further emphasized in “Naturist Medicine” by Jean Poucel (interestingly, a specialist in surgery, a field not commonly associated with “holism”).[ccxxxix] According to Poucel, “Naturism” (not to be confused with philosophical or literary Naturalism, neither with nudism or vegetarianism) implies “obedience to physiological laws and application of natural agents,” the emphasis derived, of course, from Hippocrates. By observing animals that supposedly do not show signs of decrepitude in old age, and healthy, long-lived humans living in “natural conditions” unadulterated by the evils of modern civilization, rules for a healthful and long life can be deduced. Poucel credited Carrel for propagating this idea, though, he emphasized, it had been expressed much earlier in Hufeland’s Art of Prolonging Human Life (1796), among other sources. According to Poucel, naturist medicine must fight “intoxication” (alcohol, tobacco, other narcotics), as well as social poisons that intoxicate the spirit: unhealthy literature and spectacles, passion for money, play and pleasures. The human being must live in harmony with the external milieu. He must become exposed to fresh air, to sunlight, to water. Nutrition is of primary importance, though Poucel recognized the immense controversy on what constitutes a proper or “natural” nutrition. According to him, “naturism” must not at all be equated with vegetarianism, or any other particular diet, but must rather emphasize the “quality and freshness” of the products, if possible, to be consumed in their naturally occurring form. “Natural exercises” need to be done in close communion with nature, as in “scoutism,” rather than using ingenious gymnastic devices. According to Poucel, Naturism is not to be reduced to mere “animal” or “vegetative” functions, but needs to develop psychological and moral strength, emphasizing the notion of the “unity of the individual” and the “immorality of disease.” The use of naturist hygiene is, according to him, “the only means to create a virile race.”
Martiny, Vannier and Poucel were no marginal, isolated voices. In the 1930s-early 1940s, France was at the forefront of the “Neo-Hippocratic” and “Naturist” movement, upheld by such prominent physicians as Claude Sigaud, Paul Carton, René Biot, Louis Corman and Pierre Winter. In 1933, the world’s first journal dedicated to natural and integrative medicine – Hippocrate – was inaugurated by Prof. Maxime Laignel-Lavastine of Paris. In the same year, on the initiative of Dr. Jérome Casabianca, there was organized in Marseille “La Société de Médecine Naturiste de Marseille – Médecine Préventive et Néo-hipppocratique” (the Marseille society for naturist, preventive and neo-Hippocratic medicine). The first International Congress on Neo-Hippocratism was held in July 1937 in Paris, under Laignel-Lavastine’s presidency. Then, the first grand, national conference in the field took place in Marseille in November 1938, presided over by Prof. Lucien Cornil, dean of the Marseille medical faculty. In 1939, there was founded the “Union pour la defense de l’espèce” (The union for the defense of the species”) dedicated to developing agriculture “conforming to our physiological needs.” At the time, these were pioneering institutions on the world scale.[ccxl]
At about the same time, the holistic movement also became consolidated in Germany, sometimes referred to as the “New German Science of Healing (or Medicine)” – Neue Deutsche Heilkunde. The “Verein Deutsche Volksheilkunde” (the Association of German Folk Medicine) and the “Paracelsus Institute” in Nuremberg were formed in 1935. The Congress of the New German Science of Healing was held in Wiesbaden in 1936. In March 1940, Dr. Leonardo Conti, the Health minister of the Reich, charged Dr. Ernst Günther Schenk of Munich with establishing a scientific society dedicated to research and promotion of the “methods of life and medical care conforming to nature, in order to increase the health of the people.” And in 1941, the German “Committee of Associations for Natural Methods of Living and Healing,” was reorganized into the “German People’s Health Association.”[ccxli] Yet, in several important instances (such as the world’s first specialized scientific journal and the first international congress on Neo-Hippocratism), the French preceded the Germans. The simple enumeration of the methods enjoined by the French “Neo-Hippocratic” medical movement, reveals an uncanny similarity with what in some 20-30 years later came to be celebrated in the English-speaking world as the “holistic” or “New age” approaches to health-care.[ccxlii] In summary, French physicians of the 1930s-1940s led the world in promoting “natural” and holistic health-care and life-extension, as they formerly led the world in developing reductionist rejuvenative medicine.[ccxliii]
In addition to the Hippocratic tradition, several French authors of the 1930s-1940s, imported conceptions of “wholeness” from Oriental traditions, the Chinese in particular. Here too, French intellectuals appear to be at the forefront. At the fin-de-siècle, many European, particularly British researchers, exhibited great contempt for Chinese medicine and its Taoist religious foundations.[ccxliv] French researchers of the 1930s were among the first to speak of the Chinese medical tradition with respect, including the pursuit of physical immortality so pervasive in Taoism. The French sinologist Henri Maspero (1882-1945) provided a pioneering sympathetic account of Taoist immortalism, of its philosophical rationales, as well as of the Taoist “external” alchemy, seeking life-prolongation by external remedies (such as cinnabar, gold or opotherapy), and “internal” alchemy employing respiratory, dietary, gymnastic, sexual and spiritual techniques.[ccxlv] Maspero’s work long preceded the rise of interest in Taoist science in the English-speaking world, popularly associated with the works of Joseph Needham (Science and Civilization in China, 1954) and Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics, 1976).
Other French researchers of the 1930s, such as George Soulié de Morant (Paris, 1878-1955) and Paul Ferreyrolles (La Bourboule, 1880-1955), were more concerned with immediate practical applications of Chinese medicine, such as acupuncture. Soulié de Morant was a leader in the field, proud of having introduced acupuncture to Europe in the early 1930s, with the publication of his seminal Précis d’Acuponcture (summary of acupuncture) in 1934. (Indeed, reports about acupuncture appeared in Europe since the 17th century, but never before was it consistently and widely used in European medical practice. In the US, acupuncture was not widely known before the 1960s, and the interest peaked in the early 1970s with the improvement of American-Chinese relations.[ccxlvi]) In Heretical Medicines, Soulié de Morant treated of “Acupuncture, vital energy and cosmic electricity” (“Acuponcture, énergie vitale et électricité cosmique”), in the wider context of Taoist philosophy.[ccxlvii] However, the Taoist message of extreme longevity was watered down. Rather, the work emphasized the general concepts of the vital energy chi, of the balance of “yin” and “yang” (explained as relative poles on a continuum), the wholeness of human beings and their integral relationship with the environment. A great effort was made to relate the principles of the “yang” or activity (the high, hot, hard, dry, vigorous, male, right) and the “yin” or nourishment (the low, cold, soft, moist, passive, female, left) with the notions of electromagnetism, electrophysiology or “radioesthesia” – the study of the effects of electromagnetic fields on the organism, initially including the study of dowsing (wand divination) – a forerunner of radiobiology. The “yin” was related to electrical “negativity” (as the nurturing earth has a net negative charge) and the “yang” was equated with “positivity” (as the sky has a net positive charge). Together with other contemporary French electro-physiologists and radioesthesists – doctors Elio and Hugo Biancani, Jacqueline Chantereine and Camille Savoire, Albert Leprince, and others – de Morant sought the most electromagnetically propitious environments for human health, resurrecting and rationalizing the ancient art of Feng-Shui.[ccxlviii]
The existence of bioelectricity, of electromagnetic field emanations by the human body, and their relation with surrounding fields, were the bases for de Morant’s theory and practice. The body was perceived as an integrated energy system. Imbalances of the “yin” and “yang” energies, that is, the local overabundance or deficit of the two kinds of energy, were seen as the major cause of disease. Therefore, “the purpose of acupuncture is to displace [redirect] energy between yin and yang.” The metallic needles (sometimes bimetallic, made of gold and silver, acting as galvanic elements) were supposed to act either as conductors for the discharge of excessive energy (dispersion) or supply deficient energy (tonification). According to de Morant, acupuncture “does not create energy, but adduces energy in infinitesimal quantities from metallic needles or atmospheric electricity.” De Morant further noted, apparently for the first time, the existence of anomalous electric resistance at acupuncture points. These ideas preceded those of American electrophysiologists.[ccxlix]
In de Morant, the body was seen as an integrated energy system, affected by cosmic energies, and responding to “alterations and variations of the environment, the atmosphere and the universe.”[ccl] Hence, an extensive discussion was dedicated to the correlation of human activities with fluctuations of the weather, planetary cycles, seasons of the year, phases of the moon, times of the day and places of the earth. By recognizing and adapting to the environmental factors, based on the traditional Chinese precepts, the human being was treated as a whole and as a part of the cosmos. Thus, de Morant joined the avant-garde of French holists, champions of the conservative revolution. Indeed, the rejuvenators of the 1920s, notably Voronoff and Steinach, also credited the Chinese as the initiators of opotherapy, but they made no reference to Taoist concepts of unity. De Morant too presented a rather abridged version of Taoist alchemy. Its more metaphysical and obscure notions, such as the partaking in the properties of the eternally unchanging but flowing Tao by the immortal adept (hsien) or the principle of “effortless action” (wu wei) were left out. Yet the introduction of the basic concepts of organic unity and communion with nature derived from Taoism was an essential component in the “holistic turn” of French physicians and life-extensionists of the 1930s-early 1940s.
Others built their constructs of wholeness on the foundations of Indian tradition. The Parisian internist Pierre Winter, in “What must be the traditional medicine?” (Que devrait être une médecine traditionelle?”),[ccli] promoted the Ayurvedic medical tradition, founded on the principles of humoral balance, that “remained alive in India without change for millennia,” as well as the Yogic tradition leading to bodily and mental purification and endurance. The principle of unity of all being was emphasized, and the paths toward its recognition and spiritual liberation involved the physical preparation, purification and disciplining of the body for higher forms of spiritual meditation. The influence of the mind over the body was seen as almost unlimited, leading to sizable health benefits, enhanced physical abilities and longevity. Yet, the improved regulation of physiological functions, health improvement or extraordinary physical feats performed by yogis and fakirs, were said to be only inferior and subservient to spiritual enlightenment. Winter’s central thesis was that traditional medicine must be fundamentally spiritual and “sacerdotal” – the medical profession needed to assume the function of priesthood. In India, Winter noted, the practice of medicine was performed by the elite Brahmin caste of priests and scholars. Winter provided further examples of the fusion of the pursuit of health and longevity with spiritual pursuits, and of the union of medicine with priesthood, based on sacerdotal-medical traditions from the Egyptian to Roman Catholic priests.[cclii] It was Dr. Winter’s goal to restore the traditional “priestly” character of medicine.
Dr. Pierre Merle of the Montpellier Academy of Sciences and Letters, in “Rationally inexplicable cures” (Guérisons rationnellement inexplicables”) further linked healing with the Christian faith. The particular emphasis was on faith in the Catholic doctrine, as the influence of Catholicism increased in France in the 1930s and during the Vichy regime.[ccliii] Merle methodically recounted the miraculous cures produced by the power of prayer and the laying on of hands: those produced by Christ,[ccliv] by the Church fathers, and by modern Christian devotees, as confirmed by Vatican investigations for canonization of particular church figures.[cclv] A special emphasis was given to miraculous cures reported at the sanctuary of Lourdes, where a large Bureau of Medical Records has been operating since 1884 to verify the miracles. Meticulous medical anamneses were provided, describing how the blind begin to see, the lame walk, cancers disappear, bones consolidate, and so forth, often extending the life of patients for decades.[cclvi] Merle raged against earlier “materialist” and “determinist” researchers, such as Jean-Martin Charcot and Julien Mareuse, who denied the very possibility of miraculous cures that “contradict all the laws of biology and pathology,” who disputed the authenticity of reported miracles, and, in cases of apparent authenticity, sought their explanation in some yet unknown physiological or neurological functions. According to Merle, Carrel too, though he acknowledged the phenomena of miraculous cures, was insufficiently faithful. Since, in Man, the Unknown, Carrel said that miraculous cures imply “the reality of certain relations, of still unknown nature, between psychological and organic processes,” Merle concluded that “Carrel did not lose the hope to explain, based on determinism, on a correlation between organic and mental processes, the extraordinary facts [of the cures at Lourdes] that he has been incessantly pondering since 1902.” Instead, Carrel should have acknowledged the fundamentally “imponderable” direct intervention of the Holy Spirit, invoked by prayer. Mechanistic explanations being entirely out of the question, not even the power of mental suggestion could be accepted as an explanation. According to Merle, “psychological suggestion cannot explain the instantaneous disappearance of certain organic lesions, fractures, Pott’s disease, pulmonary tuberculosis, or malignant tumors, which Charcot considered as pseudo-diseases originating in hysteria.” With reductionism thrown out of consideration, space was vacated for full-fledged spiritualism.
The unity of the spirit and the body was also the central theme in “Medicine and imponderable agents” (La médecine et les agents impondérables) by one of the leading Parisian homeopathic doctors and psychoanalysts, René Allendy. The spirit-body connection was emphasized, even though this work contained little reference to religion.[cclvii] According to Allendy, the primitive conceptions of dualism – matter vs. energy, body vs. soul – need to be rejected in favor of a synthetic, unified vision. Appropriating terminology from contemporary radiation and quantum physics, Allendy claimed that both matter and energy, mind and body, are forms of energy that cannot be dichotomized, but rather represent a “gradual continuity.” It is this continuity that can explain the profound action of thought on biological tissues. It may explain the reported “miraculous therapeutic actions” of “magnetizers, healers, occultists” as well as faith cures. The entire world consists of “electric charges and radiation,” through which all beings are interrelated, and the therapeutic effects are achieved via “wave resonance.” Each individual organism emits structured radiation, comprising the “luminous ethereal body” or “ethereal double” spoken of in mystical traditions throughout the world, from the ancient Egyptians to contemporary Spiritists. The individual “ethereal body” is connected to those of others, to the environmental and cosmic energies at large, and is considered as the primary target of intervention. Within the “ethereal body,” the thought can enact a positive physiological change “not only on the tissues of the thinking individual himself, but also on other individuals toward whom it is directed,” thus rationalizing reports of telepathy, distant therapy and divinatory radioesthesia. Changes in the “ethereal body,” in its “energy levels” or “quantum states,” induced by thought and mediated by emotion, were said to be capable of producing immediate and all-embracing healing, i.e. the restoration of “wholeness,” the “instantaneous restitutio ad integrum.” Such notions have remained the staple of holistic, “mind-over-body” life-extensionism to the present. [cclviii]
For Allendy, as well as for other contemporary French holists, the notions borrowed from electromagnetism – “radiation,” “energy field,” “electric charge,” “vortices,” “vibrations,” “waves,” “quantum states,” “resonance” – formed the theoretical basis of discussion. The studies of cosmic and environmental electromagnetism and of electrotherapy – by Robert Tournaire, Étienne Pech, Auguste Lumière, Gaston Sardou, Maurice Faure, and many others – sought to trace and manipulate those “imponderable,” intangible agents. The International Institute of Cosmobiology of Nice (Institut International de Cosmobiologie de Nice), apparently the world’s first institute in the field, was in the 1930s actively researching the effects of environmental radiation on health, as well as attempting radiation therapy and electrotherapy.[cclix] Allendy conducted laboratory experiments on the “physico-electric displacement of vital energy” in cases of metastatic transfer, attempting to cure one lesion by inducing another. He noted that the current knowledge of bioenergetics was rudimentary, but believed it opened a field of unlimited possibilities. Yet, Allendy did not go into technical details on radiation and quantum physics, such as Maxwell’s equations or wave functions, and was very likely incapable of doing so. Rather, the electro-physical allusions seem to have provided a terminological framework for Allendy’s main subject of interest: the manipulation of the mind. And in that area Allendy was an acknowledged expert, being one of the founders of the Psychoanalytic Society of Paris (Société psychanalytique de Paris, established in 1926). “Mental representations,” “images,” “suggestions” were the true means to program the individual for health and longevity, rather than electromagnetic coils.
The holistic connection between mental affirmation, health and longevity, seems to have been well grounded in contemporary psychoanalysis. To recall, Freud too considered the organism and the mind as an entirety, discussed in terms of energy balance, undergoing energy “tensions” and “discharges,” where the “Life Drive” or “Eros” were defined as instincts “exercising pressure towards a prolongation of life” and “integrating the living substance.”[cclx] In Heretical Medicines, the power of the mind was further emphasized in “Psychological Medicine” (Médecine Psychologique) by the psychiatrist Marc Guillerey of Lausanne, Switzerland, one of the founders of the “guided imagination” technique (rêverie dirigée).[cclxi] Guillerey concluded that psychological therapy “must aid medicine in resuming contact with its object, the real human being, his personality, spirit and body, with profound realities, incessant changes and influences of the social milieu, the universe, and the world of values.”
And that was indeed the unifying message of all the ‘heretics’ of the 1930s - early 1940s: emphasizing the need to treat the human being as an individuality and as an ensemble, including mental, social and environmental factors, involving a combined action of all therapeutic means available, physical and psychological. As succinctly stated by the founder of the “Lyon Group for Medical, Philosophical and Biological Studies” (1924), René Biot (1889-1966), in the article “Toward the unity of medicine” (Vers l’unité de la médecine):[cclxii] “[Therapy] must aid in the restoration of equilibrium of the entire human being, resorting to all the means by which one can hope to attain this goal, by remedies and regimens, by operations, serums, irradiations, by those infinitely complex and delicate affairs one so nicely calls ‘care’ – from the aspect of the room and a flower on the table, to smoothing a wrinkle on the pillow.” Moral values, even the faith of the patient, as well as those of the therapist and researcher, are indispensable components of biomedical research and practice. As Biot pointed out, physicians and researchers “hardly have any illusions about the imperfection of their knowledge.” Nonetheless, “the most sceptical and disillusioned ones respond to the call of the suffering and return to their laboratory to patiently resume experimentation.” According to Biot, “The belief in Providence, far from impeding medical effort, encourages scientific research.”
The message of reconciliation and unification of various forms of therapy recurred in the article of Dr. Paul Jottras of Elbeuf, “Scientific analysis and humane medicine” (Analyse scientifique et médecine humaine).[cclxiii] The majority of authors in Heretical Medicines valorized the power of the mind over the body, highlighting “synthesis,” and taking up arms against mechanistic, materialistic, deterministic or reductionist views. Jottras begged not to discard the reductionist, “analytical” approach altogether. He pointed out that “pre-scientific,” vitalist and anti-materialist views often masked lacunas in the understanding of physiological mechanisms, and sometimes amounted to superstition and charlatanry. He reminded the readers that thanks to the conquests of “materialist,” “quantitative” and “analytical” medicine, such as antiseptics and anesthesia, “since the beginning of the scientific era, the average duration of human life approximately doubled.” Yet, according to Jottras, “exclusive analysis” is “sterile” and “insufficient.” Rather, analysis must be complemented by synthesis. The classical antitheses – patient and disease, contagion and heredity, humanism and physical chemistry, intelligence and élan vital – are not mutually exclusive. Rather, these are “complementary” laws and disciplines which limit each other, but do not exclude each other. According to Jottras, medicine must expand to become a “method for happiness, recognizing esthetic and moral values,” for “what is the purpose of the prolongation of human life, if one does not know how to use it?” Having embarked upon the way of unification and complementarity, human beings can overcome their limitations and perhaps become “superhuman.”
The message of reconciliation between the so-called “official” and “heretical” medicines was most vehemently expressed by Rémy Collin, professor at the Medical Faculty of Nancy and a corresponding member of the French Academy of Medicine, in “Is there an official doctrine?” (Existe-t-il une doctrine officielle?).[cclxiv] Collin loathed the opposition between “innovators” and “classics.” Very often, the so-called “innovators” – independent practitioners, researchers and healers – were represented by their detractors as charlatans and ignoramuses. On the other hand, the members of the so-called establishment, the proponents of the “classical” or “official” doctrine, were depicted by opposition as petrified snags on the road to progress and arrogant, self-serving bigots. According to Collin, such a dichotomy is far from representing the actual state of affairs and at any rate cannot be normative. Indeed, Collin attributed a privileged position to the “establishment.” According to him, it is the obligation and the right of the State to ensure public health, and for that purpose to regulate medical instruction and practice, ensuring compliance with a certain set of standards via established institutions. Such institutions are the origin of the “traditional” or “official” doctrine. However, they are also the origin of the largest part of innovation ever produced. Moreover, unaffiliated “independent” researchers are defined by their relation to the existing institutions: they either need a certain level of accreditation from the “establishment” to give credence to their propositions, or, at the very least, be aware of the existing standards to challenge them. Conversely, the official doctrine derives from the independents “the nourishment to increase its growth,” though retaining its “preeminence.” According to Collin, there is no conflict of goals between “classics” and “innovators” whatsoever:
We must trust the official doctrine and education with providing the practitioners with classical means of action. It is clearly desirable that therapy accelerates in pace, that social evils are defeated, that human beings avoid suffering, and that human life is extended to extreme biological limits. This generous desire supports the most ardent of innovators in their efforts. But is it not also shared by the classics?
The desire to maintain equilibrium and constancy, I argue, has been the underlying drive for the majority of life-extensionists, even though they sometimes envisioned quite unorthodox and varied methods to sustain the constancy. Collin expressed this desire for conservation in most unambiguous terms. According to him, biomedical research and practice, including the pursuit of longevity, are born within established institutions and can never exist apart from them. They evolve toward strengthening of institutions and toward unification and stability of the doctrine. The unified doctrine, solidified and perpetuated in established institutions, “provides us, here and now, with applicable means in the fight for health, it also gives us an idea of permanence, of necessity, which is a factual contributor to science.” Rather than excluding or annihilating unorthodox schools and doctrines, Collin proposed that they should be tested and subsumed into the edifice of the “official” medical establishment. Collin, together with professors Pierre Delore and Marcel Martiny, fully supported the (unrealized) proposal for “The Institute of Control” (Institut de Contrôle) intended to “methodically explore para-medical treatments, subject them to scientific criticism and severe control, to distinguish between the true, the false and the doubtful, between the useful, unuseful and harmful, to establish a balance, to appropriate what works and reject the rest.” Collin fully agreed with the principle “Ars una, species mille” – Art is one, its species are thousand. And, of course, psychological and social factors are never to be excluded from the unity of the “official doctrine,” as it must incorporate not only “original cognitive content” but also “moral and social values” in the “unanimous effort toward procuring well-being, alleviation of suffering, preservation of health – the conditions for the infinitely more precious achievement, the realization of human personality and its ultimate purpose.” Thus, the existing medical establishment, replenished rather than torn apart by diverse holistic streams and traditions, can itself be made more durable and produce lasting effects.
In summary, a great, pioneering effort was made by the authors of Heretical Medicines to incorporate “holistic” approaches into the foundations of the French medical establishment, drawing on the “perennial” Hippocratic, Oriental and Catholic traditions, and rejecting more “modish” materialistic and reductionist interventions. It may not be accidental that the “holistic shift” occurred concomitantly with the strengthening of the so-called French political “traditionalism,” reinforcing in the 1930s and culminating during the Vichy regime. The term “traditionalism” (traditionalisme) generally refers to an attempt to return to pre-Enlightenment values, for example, replacing the values of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” with “Labour, Family, Fatherland.”[cclxv] Yet, its extension into the field of longevity research is conceivable. It is difficult to speculate whether the attempts of rejuvenators to dissect and make far-reaching “progressive” intrusions into the “human nature” became increasingly suspicious within the political “traditionalist” paradigm; or whether the failure of the “rejuvenative” intrusions somehow contributed to the general rise of “traditionalism.” In any case, the concomitance of the “holistic shift” with the rise of “traditionalism” may be significant.
18. Longevity and holism. The theory of Sergey Metalnikov (1870-1946) and the practice of Alexandre Guéniot (1832-1935)
The majority of authors of Heretical Medicines (most notably Carrel, Lumière, Collin, Jottras, Martiny, Allendy, and Poucel) expressed some hope for increasing longevity and combating aging. They spoke of the desirability of a dramatic increase in the “mean duration of human life,” “prolongation of human life to extreme biological limits,” reaching extreme old age “free of decrepitude,” preventing “precocious senescence.” Yet, for them, extending longevity was not the central theme. Rather, the ubiquitous subject was the preservation of “wholeness” and “equilibrium” of human existence that must involve not only organic, but also psychological, social and environmental components, emphasizing hygiene and life-style improvements. Temporal limits for maintaining such an equilibrium were not posited, and it was implied that it could be sustained for prolonged periods. The analysis of Heretical Medicines indicates that the pursuit of longevity in France in the 1930s-early 1940s existed in the context of a substantial strengthening of these “holistic,” or as it was then more commonly termed “Neo-Hippocratic,” approaches to prevention and therapy.[cclxvi] As it can be clearly seen from the works of Carrel and Lumière, the “holistic” precepts emerged in part as a counter-reaction to “reductionist,” “materialistic” and “mechanistic” approaches to biomedicine that had informed the “rejuvenation attempts” of the 1920s.
The shift toward a “holistic” perspective can be further exemplified by the works of other contemporary French authors for whom longevity was indeed the central theme. The writings of Sergey Ivanovich Metalnikov provide a striking example. Metalnikov was Metchnikoff’s pupil at the Pasteur Institute, and then professor of zoology at St. Petersburg University (1907-1917). Descending from a wealthy Russian aristocratic family, he immigrated to France after the revolution of 1917, and to the end of his career continued to work at the Pasteur Institute. The “holistic turn” in his work can be shown by comparing two editions of Metalnikov’s book on the subjects of rejuvenation and longevity, of 1924 and 1937. The Russian title of 1924 was Problema Bessmertia i Omolozhenia v Sovremennoy Biologii (The Problem of Immortality and Rejuvenation in Modern Biology), and the French edition of 1937 was entitled La Lutte Contre La Mort (The Struggle against Death).[cclxvii] Metchnikoff’s loyal disciple, Metalnikov fully shared his teacher’s dream of radically extending human longevity (to the age of 150 at least), as he shared many of Metchnikoff’s theoretical precepts: the supposition of potential immortality of living matter and the central role of intestinal intoxication in aging. A major portion of Metalnikov’s research concerned combating intestinal putrefactive micro-flora to the point of sterility.
The edition of 1937 reproduces in bulk the text of 1924, with identical overarching conclusions. According to Metalnikov, potential immortality, and not death, is the most characteristic feature of living organisms:[cclxviii]
All the stated facts convince us that immortality is the fundamental property of living organisms, and that the multiplication, growth and succession of generations are only possible thanks to immortal sexual and somatic cells that incessantly nourish themselves, accumulating new reserves of living matter. … The living cell, under present conditions of terrestrial existence, can divide and multiply to infinity. Aging and death are not necessary stages of terrestrial existence.
And if fundamental life components are potentially immortal, their ensemble can be made potentially immortal, and thus the efforts toward immortalization are “practically feasible and scientifically grounded.” Even though Metalnikov acknowledged that the present knowledge of the factors regulating cell growth and immortality is rudimentary, and their practical manipulation is presently unavailable, the problem is well within the scope of experimental science and biomedical technology:
The human organism is composed of living cells that have the potential for infinite growth and multiplication. If we could restore to the human being that property that we observe in so many primitive organisms (hydras, worms, etc.) – the ability to restore lost parts, then the problem of aging and death would be solved. If we found the factors that induce the division of cells in a living organism and could regulate their multiplication, the problem would be solved.
These are fairly reductionist statements, carried forward from 1924 to 1937, underscoring Metalnikov’s fundamentally materialist worldview. Yet, a substantial revision was made in the edition of 1937. In that latter edition, Metalnikov added the brain to the body.
Already in 1924, Metalnikov briefly indicated that “we insufficiently consider the role of neural centers and psychic activity in the life of the organism and even its individual cells and tissues…. Through the education of the will, through certain training, through auto-suggestion or external suggestion, we could obtain important results.”[cclxix] In the edition of 1937, he expanded that thought into several chapters. He proposed a central role of the nervous system in immunity, to the point of suggesting that immunity could be a conditioned reflex. Similarly to Lumière, Metalnikov believed that phenomena of immune hypersensitivity and desensitization are regulated by the nervous system, and can be subject to conscious control. (Lumière, however, was critical of Metalnikov’s expositions. He thought Metalnikov’s title “The problem of immortality and rejuvenation in modern biology” should be replaced by “The problem of immortality and rejuvenation in ‘Ancient biology’” because Metalnikov did not make account of Lumière’s cutting edge “humoral-colloidal” theory.[cclxx]) More generally, in 1937, Metalnikov attributed great importance to conditioned reflexes as principal factors in diseases, nervous and chronic, viral and toxic. According to Metalnikov, “a simple change in the conditions of life, that is to say, the suppression of some conditioned reflexes, is enough to produce a salutary effect on the patient.” The action of speech, or “verbal excitation,” was considered as a conditioned reflex, as a means “to invoke in the organism certain defensive reactions.” The examples of profound organic changes, either destructive or healing, effected by verbal suggestion “demonstrate the possibility of the utilization of speech as a very important therapeutic means that intervenes in the function of the entire organism.”
The final chapter of the 1937 edition was dedicated to Yoga, in place of the chapter on Steinach’s and Voronoff’s operations that concluded the book in 1924. In that chapter, Metalnikov catalogued feats of physical endurance and health benefits attained by yogis and fakirs. He admired Yogis’ conscious mastery of the body, attained in their ascetic effort to unify with the Universe, the very term “yoga” meaning “unification.” Exercises in “Hatha Yoga” (literally the “sun and moon yoga”) or the physical preparation for spiritual ascension, impart to the “ensemble of the body the flexibility, power and harmony, the factors of a perfect equilibrium.” Yogic practices demonstrate that “vegetative life” is inseparable from and controllable by “consciousness.” They show that “the will” and “mental concentration” can have “infinite power for regulation and order.” Even though the yogis are ignorant of the structure of their organs, they are incontestable masters of their functions. Most remarkably, they masterfully control the respiratory function and hence the overall body energy. According to Metalnikov, yogic mental, physical and alimentary practices should be extensively studied and appropriated into a new branch of longevity science. “Surely,” Metalnikov concluded, “this science, involving many secrets and mysteries, can open for us new ways in the struggle against diseases and death.”
In addition to giving a greater weight to mental factors, the 1937 edition also placed a stronger emphasis on social and environmental factors for longevity. Indeed, Metalnikov remained quite fond of reductionist rejuvenation:[cclxxi]
The works of Brown-Séquard, who for the first time showed that hormones of seminal glands act as a stimulant on the aging organism; the works of Metchnikoff who studied the phenomena of aging in different animals and showed the role of intestinal flora in diverse infirmities and in premature senescence, and who outlined new ways for the struggle against aging; finally the works of Steinach, Voronoff and many others, who showed that the transplantations of living seminal and sexual glands into the aging organism act in a rejuvenating manner – all these are such acquisitions of science that will never be forgotten.
Yet, he judiciously removed from the 1937 edition the chapter on human applications of Steinach’s and Voronoff’s procedures, and only left the chapter on animal experiments. Apparently the “rejuvenation experiments in humans and higher animals” of the 1920s, did not produce sufficiently conclusive results that Metalnikov could still flaunt in 1937.
In 1924, the chapter entitled “Is the struggle against aging and death possible?” ended with an account of experimental regeneration, rejuvenation and life-prolongation in hydras and flatworms (among other factors, by starvation, cold, wounds, chemical exposure, and other kinds of stressful milieu) and with the hope that further extensive research will discover the factors regulating the multiplication of cells within the human organism, and thus it will become possible to control cell life and effect unlimited damage repair. In 1937, the chapter ended with a consideration of environmental and social factors in human longevity:[cclxxii]
Each year, we make new discoveries in the study and treatment of diseases. It will not be long before all diseases will be vanquished. However, exterior conditions also play a very important role: profession, housing, resources, medical and sanitary organization, and finally education. The spreading of well-being, of hygiene, the progress of medicine, considerably reduce general mortality.
Metalnikov supported the notion that heredity and social factors are of about equal importance for longevity. His ultimate conviction was that “human age limit can significantly exceed 150 years, if we could live in perfect hygienic conditions.” To the last, Metalnikov believed in the unlimited potentialities of experimental, reductionist science in fighting senescence. To accelerate progress in this area, he advocated the establishment of “an institute for experimental studies of aging and death.”[cclxxiii] The radical prolongation of life, he believed, is “not a fantasy, but a real scientific problem” that could be resolved by “collective work of many scientists.” Yet, the increasing emphasis on the mental, social and environmental determinants in his work indicates that, despite his entrenched materialism, he was no exception from the “holistic turn” in French life-extensionism of the 1930s.
Another crucial figure in French life-extensionism of the period, the centenarian president of the French Academy of Medicine, Alexandre Guéniot of Paris (1832-1935), placed even less stock in reductionist rejuvenation. His book Pour Vivre Cent Ans. L’Art de Prolonger ses Jours (To Live a Century. The Art of Prolonging the Days, 1931)[cclxxiv] valorized hygiene and the direct power of the mind over experimental, reductionist biology. According to Guéniot, the mechanistic views of former French longevity researchers were too narrow and overlooked a large area of potential means for life-prolongation. Thus, according to Guéniot, nothing can be farther from truth than the claims of Georges-Louis Buffon (1707-1788) who stated that “the duration of human life does not depend either on habits, or morals, or the quality of nutrition, nothing can change the laws of mechanics that determine the numbers of our years” and those of Marie-Jean-Pierre Flourens (1794-1867) who posited that “the duration of life does not depend either on climate, or nourishment, or race, does not depend on anything exterior; it depends only on the intimate constitution of our organs.” In contrast, it was precisely the adjustment of the life-style and environmental factors that Guéniot advocated.
Indeed, Guéniot attributed great significance to the “hereditary vital force” that, according to him, determines the natural duration of human life at no less than a hundred years. Yet, he emphasized that very few attain this limit, and the task of practical life-extension must consist in hygienic measures to help everybody attain it:
The human life has a natural duration of about hundred years. There can be no proper discussion of life-prolongation, except for attaining this term. But when we consider that the ordinary duration does not exceed 75 to 85 years, the expression is exact, because this is a veritable prolongation of life for 15 to 25 years. (Emphasis in the original.)
Though recognizing the power of heredity, Guéniot was far from advocating eugenics. Even though he acknowledged that there might be a rationale for encouraging healthy parentage, eugenics is “not limited to healthy practices,” and becomes fraught with “culpable pretensions.” It can rapidly expand into racism, interfering with interracial marriages, sterilizing “bad producers” and “undesirables,” putting to death severely ill and handicapped. Hygiene provides an alternative: from the moment a new being is conceived, during and after the birth, “both the mother and infant must become objects of enlightened care that would insure for them suitable existence in their particular conditions.” In this way, “without recurring to practices that are as much criminal as they are radical … the application of special hygiene, applicable for each particular case, will prevent the eventuality of an undesirable or harmful generation.”
Guéniot was not particularly inspired by reductionist rejuvenation either. Indeed, the vitalizing effects of sex hormones were acknowledged, and their supplementation deemed reasonable. However, according to Guéniot, continuous injections of hormones were not equivalent to a continuous functioning of sex glands within the human organism. The transplantation of sex glands, as practiced by Mauclaire, Voronoff, Dartigues and others, in turn, raised almost insurmountable difficulties. Transplants from domestic animals were impossible due to rejection, and those from apes or humans were so difficult to obtain, rare and costly, that it made their use generally impracticable and only possible for a very “few privileged” subjects. At any rate, insofar as such transplants had been only practiced for a dozen years, their long-term effects and potentialities were difficult to assess. Hence, presently, endocrine grafts “cannot be held for a solution. Let us wait for a solution in the future.” According to Guéniot, the vitalizing power of sex hormones can only be practically utilized within the framework of personal hygienic regimens. “No excess in the expenditure of this matter during our maturity!” Guéniot urged.
Indeed, hygienic regimens occupied the central place in Guéniot’s exposition. According to him, these were perhaps the only means currently available for life-extension, and may remain the only means for some indeterminate time. The traditional assortment of measures was discussed: physical exercise, massages, baths, rest and sleep, pure air, moderate and balanced, vitamin-rich nutrition. The simultaneous “holistic” application of diverse and concerted means was preferred over any reductionist tweaking of a particular target.[cclxxv]
According to Guéniot, within the ensemble of hygienic measures, psychological and moral factors play a crucial role. Guéniot noted the “astonishing conservation of mental faculties in ultra-centenarians” and hypothesized that the “exceptional vitality of ultra-centenarians enacts in an equal measure all the parts composing their organism,” achieving a balanced exercise of the body and mind. Following a moral code was believed to be highly conducive to longevity. The entire book was in fact a set of codified rules of conduct, and moral rules were not excluded. In the best tradition of the early life-extensionist hygienists – Cornaro, Lessius, Cohausen and Hufeland – Guéniot’s macrobiotic moral code involved a strong Christian sentiment: “To become free of defects, faithfully follow the precepts of the Gospel. ‘The code of happiness, a wise man said, is all in these precepts.’ Knowing them, you will advance in the right path; you will guard the peace of your soul at the same time as your natural happiness.” And furthermore, “It is from the point of view of the divine, that human life really acquires all its value and its splendid beauty.” The code emphasized the values of frugality and industry, and addressed the middle-to-upper class: “scholars,” “magistrates,” “officers,” “honorable merchants.” In summary, Guéniot’s work was conservative in morals, as it was conservative in methods. The morals stemmed from and were addressed to his immediate social surroundings. The methods built on centuries-long hygienic traditions, emphasizing “natural” regimens, not much different from anything we do every day, in counter-reaction to more farfetched methods of intervention. Yet, Guéniot proposed an overarching moral imperative for life-extension that would apply to all social settings and that would be served by all interventions: the absolute value of human life and its preservation. “Yes, for man, life is a Good. It is the primary of all benefits, without which all other benefits are as much as inexistent.”
19. Chapter conclusion. Between reductionism and holism
Guéniot’s work is a prime example of the general trend found in the attitudes to life-extension in France in the 1930s-early 1940s. The methods proposed by Guéniot are essentially the same as for the majority of the proponents of Neo-Hippocratism or Naturism. Given the dates of publication, age and status, Guéniot may well be considered the patriarch of the movement. Guéniot, as well as other Neo-Hippocratists, moved away from the reductionism underlying the rejuvenation attempts of the 1920s, toward a more “traditional,” “natural” and “holistic” perspective, aiming to integrate psychological, societal and environmental factors into a comprehensive therapy for the ‘perpetuation of the whole.’ The Neo-Hippocratists also appear to have embraced a transition from French progressivism and positivism toward more traditionalist and religious views (the transition that may have been generally characteristic of the French society of the 1930s and the Vichy regime.[cclxxvi])
After the “holistic turn” France seems to have lost its leading position in the life-extensionist movement. The diminishing impact of French life-extensionists after the departure from reductionist rejuvenation endeavors is understandable, as it signified a departure from daring interventions toward a more protective and conservative attitude. Since the 1930s through the 1950s, the (predominantly critical and cautious) discussions of rejuvenation continued in France, notably by the founders of the French Society of Gerontology (formed in 1939) – Leon Binet (1891-1971) and Francois Bourlière (1913-1993). Leon Binet, who became president of the French Academy of Sciences in 1957, focused on clinical geriatrics and experimented with oxygen therapy and embryonic extracts. Francois Bourlière, who became the founding director of the Claude Bernard Center of Gerontology in Paris in 1956, conducted comparative studies of average longevity from various animal species and supported the use of hormones (mainly sex hormones) in geriatric therapy.[cclxxvii] In the late 1940s, Michel Bardach of the Pasteur Institute in Paris advanced a “rejuvenative”/“orthobiotic”/”stimulating” cytotoxic serum.[cclxxviii] In the 1950s and 1960s, the biologist and philosopher of science Jean Rostand (1894-1977) was an outspoken supporter of radical life-extension and pioneer of cryo-preservation.[cclxxix] But none of these researchers seems to have had the notoriety and ambition of the French “founding fathers” of life-extensionism – Brown-Séquard, Metchnikoff and Voronoff.[cclxxx]
Presently, the discussion of radical longevity in France appears to have become little noticeable. And yet, despite the apparent relative decrease of emphasis, longevity research does continue in France. There are well established gerontological research centers and associations.[cclxxxi] Anti-aging medicine is widely spread in France, with applications ranging from cosmetics to stem cells.[cclxxxii] There are vibrant (though apparently not very numerous) transhumanist and life-extensionist communities.[cclxxxiii] And of course, several famous longevity-related issues have been discussed: the French super-centenarian woman Jean Calment (1875-1997), holding the certified world record of human longevity at 122 years and 164 days[cclxxxiv]; the relatively high average life-expectancy in France (rising from about 81 years in 2010 to about 82 in 2013)[cclxxxv]; the “French Paradox” (the alleged low incidence of heart disease, which is commonly explained by a relative moderation in diet and by a moderate consumption of red wine),[cclxxxvi] etc. Despite all these, few groundbreaking longevity research sensations seem to have lately emerged out of France, compared to the trail-blazing times of the early 20th century. Was the pioneering spirit lost in the “holistic turn” of the 1930s? Are there now signs of catching up?[cclxxxvii]
As will be shown in the next chapter, a very similar trend occurred in Germany in the 1930s, though it may have been more burdened by what Guéniot called “culpable pretensions.” As both French and German attitudes would exemplify, the discourse on the prolongation of life implied radical conservationism, the drive for the preservation of current perceptions of personality and the perpetuation of the current social order.
Germany: The preservation of the “National Body” and “Connection to Nature.”
Allies and neutrals – Austria, Romania, Switzerland
Similarly to France, the discussion of life-extension in Germany in the 1930s showed a notable shift of emphasis from “materialistic-reductionist” or “artificial” rejuvenation toward more “natural” and “holistic” macrobiotic hygiene. The enhancement and prolongation of individual life were often seen as necessary conditions for the strengthening and maintenance of the National Body (Volkskörper) and eventually for the perpetuation of the ruling order. The “natural” hygienic life style improvements were emphasized, as the German society was supposed to be reverting to a “natural,” “healthy” state of the nation. Besides the valorization of the “natural” hygienic approach, the second central characteristic of contemporary German life-extensionism appears to be its “national” emphasis. Within the “national” discussion framework, several elements are conspicuous: the almost exclusive focus on German achievement, as well as the authoritarian imposition of the power of the medical-political establishment from above, and the valorization of the collective will power of the entire nation from below. Rather than antagonistic, the massive enthusiasm from below and the authoritarian rule from above appear to be mutually reinforcing in the attempt to create a long-enduring “National Body.” Similarly to France, after the “holistic/natural” turn, life-extensionism is Germany and Austria appears to have become largely deemphasized, in contrast to Romania and Switzerland where the tradition of reductionist rejuvenation remained strong.
2. The German tradition. “And Nature, teaching, will expand the power of your soul”[cclxxxviii]
Similar to the case of France, in Germany of the 1930s, “materialistic-reductionist” or “artificial” rejuvenation attempts were increasingly displaced by more “natural” and “holistic” hygienic approaches to life-extension. The dichotomy was not new for German thought. The ground-laying works in German life-extensionism – Johann Heinrich Cohausen’s Hermippus Redivivus or the Sage’s Triumph over Old Age and the Grave (1742),[cclxxxix] Johann Bernhard Fischer’s On Old Age, its Degrees and Diseases (1754),[ccxc]and most influentially Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland’s Macrobiotics or The Art of Prolonging Human Life (1796)[ccxci] – emphasized “natural” (natürliche / natúrgemässe) hygienic life-style improvements and scorned the alchemists’ “artificial” (künstliche) rejuvenating nostrums. The same distinction was made by one of Hufeland’s patients – Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832) in Faust (1808-1832). Before Faust embarks on his epic adventure, he considers the means that would lend him the youthful strength necessary for the effort: “Has not a noble mind found long ago Some balsam to restore a youth that's vanished?”[ccxcii] Mephistopheles knows “a natural way to make thee young”:
Well! Here's one that needs no pay,
No help of physic, nor enchanting.
Out to the fields without delay,
And take to hacking, digging, planting;
Run the same round from day to day,
A treadmill-life, contented, leading,
With simple fare both mind and body feeding,
Live with the beast as beast, nor count it robbery
Shouldst thou manure, thyself, the field thou reapest;
Follow this course and, trust to me,
For eighty years thy youth thou keepest!
Faust finds the “natural” method too inconvenient and laborious. Therefore he needs to resort to a rejuvenating potion to be prepared by the witches. Though drinking the potion is easy, its preparation is devilishly difficult. “To tell each thing that forms a part would sound to thee like wildest fable” and the preparation “costs a still spirit years of occupation.” Mephistopheles himself would not undertake the task. The witch produces the potion, with a great show of humbuggery (the “hocus-pocus” or “witches’ arithmetic”). Though initially scared by the flames the brew exudes, Faust eventually drinks the potion and is infused with vital heat, eroticizing him and inducing his passion for Margaret: “Soon will, when once this drink shall heat thee, In every girl a Helen meet thee!” Ultimately, the potion’s effect proves to be short lasting, and at the end of the play Faust dies in complete decrepitude. This short passage foreshadows many of the controversies in the pursuit of longevity in Germany.
As the works of the early hygienists exemplify, “natural” and “holistic” macrobiotics, “the art of prolonging human life” based on personal hygiene, physical work, diet and mental suggestion, rather than pharmacology or surgery, had been well established in the German-speaking world since the 18th century, and even earlier. Yet, from the beginning of the twentieth century and through the 1920s, “artificial” reductionist rejuvenation, using organotherapeutic (endocrine gland) supplements, gland transplantations or gland stimulation (predominantly those of the sex glands), surged in Germany and Austria, on a scale comparable to that of France and in a constant competition with French rejuvenators. Against the French pioneers of rejuvenation – C.E. Brown-Séquard, Elie Metchnikoff, Serge Voronoff, Placide Mauclaire, Lois Dartigues, Raymond Petit, Léopold Lévi, Henri de Rothschild, and others – the German-speaking world pitted its own champions. Austria led the way with the pioneering works of Eugen Steinach on sexual rejuvenation, most famously the “Steinach procedure” involving spermatic cord vasoligation, but also various forms of sex gland transplants and supplements. Steinach was followed by a host of other Austrian rejuvenators – Karl Doppler, Robert Lichtenstern, Paul Kammerer, Erwin Last, August Bier, Emerich Ullmann, Otto Kauders, and others – performing the “Steinach Procedure” by the hundreds and thousands, as well as other modified versions of sexual stimulation. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was enthusiastic enough about Steinach’s rejuvenating operation to have it performed on himself in 1923 by the surgeon Victor Blum. In Germany too, in the first quarter of the century, the rejuvenation movement boomed, though perhaps to a lesser extent than in Austria. The German physiologist Jürgen Harms (1885-1956) performed the first testis transplantations in guinea pigs at about the same time as Steinach, in 1911, while Voronoff conducted the first testis transplantations in animals (he-goats and rams) only in 1917. In the 1920s, Harms was one of the most active proponents of sexual rejuvenation in humans, though Voronoff’s work stirred a much greater sensation. One of the most energetic practitioners of Steinach’s procedure in Germany was Peter Schmidt, having performed hundreds of operations in his clinic in Berlin. Other Berlin practitioners, such as Richard Mühsam and Ludwing Levy-Lenz, followed suit. Indeed, in the 1920s, Steinach’s procedure was widely applied all across the world.[ccxciii] In Germany, however, the application of Steinach’s operation was among the widest.
Beside operative interventions, by the late 1920s, hormonal preparations for rejuvenation became an object of keen interest in Germany. Very soon after Brown-Séquard’s seminal announcement of 1889 on the self-injection with testicular extracts for rejuvenation, in 1893 the Danish/German physician Frederick Vermehren already actively employed thyroid extracts for the same purpose.[ccxciv] In the early 1900s, adrenal, pituitary and pancreatic extracts were widely administered. Sex gland extracts, however, enjoyed by far the greatest vogue in the rejuvenation business, becoming the modern equivalents of Faust’s reinvigorating and eroticizing brew. By the 1930s, sex gland extracts and stimulants became widely available for men and women: Testiglandol from Grenzach and Testifortan from Promonta, Novotestal from Merck and Plazentaopton from Kalle, Pituglandol and Neosex, Testogan and Yohimbin, Progynon and Menformon, Follikulin and Unden, dried ovaries, testis and erectile tissue powder. [ccxcv]
The majority of German founders of endocrinology (many of whom incidentally were Jewish) actively researched, developed and advertised the rejuvenating and eroticizing effects of such supplements. The illustrious Jewish proponents included Magnus Hirschfeld (the founder of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft – the Institute for Sex Research in Berlin and one of the first gay rights activists), Bernhard Schapiro (Hirschfeld’s co-worker and co-developer of Testifortan), Max Hirsch (editor of the monumental Handbuch der Inneren Sekretion - Handbook of Inner Secretion, 1926-1933), Bernhard Zondek and Selmar Ascheim (developers of the first reliable pregnancy test), and Hermann Zondek (Bernhard’s older brother, also a prominent endocrinologist). Their “rejuvenation research” in Germany terminated with the ascension of National Socialism. After the German-Austrian “Anschluss” in 1938, the work of many Jewish rejuvenators in Austria, such as Eugen Steinach and Otto Kauders (1893-1949), also became impossible.[ccxcvi] The fact that so many German rejuvenators of the 1920s were Jewish (not to mention that the principal founders of the rejuvenation movement – Metchnikoff, Steinach and Voronoff – had Jewish origins) will be shortly brought to bear on the discussions of life-extension in Nazi Germany. At this point, it is important to note that in the 1920s the rejuvenation through “artificial” operative or pharmacological/organotherapeutic interventions flourished in Germany and Austria, and from this intertwined research into sex and rejuvenation a large part of modern endocrinology was born.[ccxcvii]
3. Rethinking rejuvenation – Benno Romeis (1888-1971)
Despite the initial advances, by the early 1930s it was, however, becoming increasingly clear that the “rejuvenation” methods did not quite live up to their promise. A striking testimony to the disenchantment with “rejuvenation” can be found in Altern und Verjüngung. Eine Kritische Darstellung der Endokrinen “Verjüngungsmethoden,” Ihrer Theoretischen Grundlagen und der Bisher Erzielten Erfolge (Aging and Rejuvenation: A Critical Presentation of Endocrine “Rejuvenation Methods,” Their Theoretical Foundations and Up-to-Date Successes), by Benno Romeis (1931).[ccxcviii] Prof. Dr. Benno Romeis, at the time director of the Department of Experimental Biology of the Institute of Anatomy at the University of Munich, was an active member of the rejuvenation movement, having conducted in the 1920s extensive original studies on the effects of rejuvenating interventions (particularly Steinach’s operations and hormonal supplements). Altern und Verjüngung (initially published as a part of Max Hirsch’s Handbuch der Inneren Sekretion) was one of the most authoritative and thorough accounts of the worldwide rejuvenation research up-to-the-date, a watershed monograph, summarizing the rejuvenators’ successes and failures and pointing out possible directions for future study.
For most instances, Romeis’s criticisms were devastating. First of all, the extensive anatomical and physiological data on age-related changes of various endocrine organs (thyroid, parathyroid, pituitary, adrenals, testes and ovaries) did not permit to ascribe to any of these organs the predominant or primary causative role in senescence, as many reductionist rejuvenators would have liked to believe.[ccxcix] Furthermore, the most widely used and journalistically acclaimed rejuvenation methods came under fire, Steinach’s procedure of the ligation of spermatic ducts (“vasoligation”) in the first place.[ccc] Equally unfavorable were the conclusions regarding the methodology and clinical success of other rejuvenating operations: Eugen Steinach’s and Victor Lakatos’ “albugineatomy” (removal of the tunica albuginea layer of the testicles); Emerich Ullmann’s “decortication of testicles”; Naum Lebedinsky’s smashing and tearing of animal testicles;[ccci] Ivan O. Michalowsky’s method of testicle ligation; Karl Doppler’s “phenolization” (sympathico-diaphtheresis) destroying sympathetic vasoconstrictive nerves of the testicles to improve local blood flow; diathermy (electric heating) and irradiation of sex glands.[cccii] A special section in Romeis’s critique was dedicated to the most sensational “rejuvenating” method of all – the transplantation of sex glands (male and female), performed by Voronoff and others.[ccciii] As Romeis demonstrated, in all these operations, the results were either dubious or short lasting, inconclusive, contradictory and confounded, the sample size was too small and the observation time too short, autosuggestion difficult to rule out and the presentation faulty.
Next to the operative interventions, Romeis’s work testified to and warned against the enormous spread of various “rejuvenating” hormone preparations. Similarly to the rejuvenating surgery, from their very inception, hormone potions and injections fueled journalistic enthusiasm and empowered charlatans. Even Brown-Séquard, the inventor of rejuvenative hormone therapy, felt obliged to caution against “many clinicians but more often quacks and charlatans [who] have exploited the deep desire of a large number of individuals and have exposed them to the greatest risks” (1889).[ccciv] Soon after Brown-Séquard’s report of 1889, testicular extracts were used not only to combat aging, but were also said to work wonders against “general weakness, tuberculosis, ataxia, neural degeneration (tabes), carcinoma,” etc.[cccv] Since 1889 until 1893, at least 10,000 flasks of the “testicular extract” were produced and at least 200,000 injections administered. The successes of such preparations were “seeming successes, whose weak foundations could not be defended even by the greatest of optimists.” The end of Brown-Séquard’s “rejuvenation therapy” was a “deep disappointment.” Fin-de-siècle studies on the anti-aging effects of thyroid hormones (by Frederick Vermehren) or adrenalin (by Anastasios Aravandinos) were too scant to provide any further grounds for hopefulness. In Romeis’s account, by the 1920s, the interest in hormones subsided, but rekindled in the 1920s in the wake of successful operative interventions. As the obstacles to the general application of rejuvenating operations were immense (even for those that Romeis considered to be most effective, such as transplantation), the rejuvenators naturally sought cheaper and more widely applicable oral or subcutaneous preparations that would achieve similar results. Yet, after the surge of interest in “organotherapeutic” hormone preparations in the 1920s, the state of the art was that “until now the number of ascertained successes is inversely proportional to the number of advertised preparations.”[cccvi]
The general conclusion regarding all the rejuvenation methods that flourished in the 1920s was sobering:[cccvii]
The exaggerated hopes, raised [by the endocrine rejuvenation methods] in wide circles, especially by Steinach’s vasoligation procedure and Voronoff’s transplantation of apes’ testicles, were not fulfilled. There can naturally be no talk about the ‘Defeat of Aging,’ the catchphrase touted by uncritical journalism. ‘Rejuvenation,’ in the true meaning of this word, is today impossible for vertebrates.
Yet, Romeis retained a mighty measure of optimism. “It would be mistaken,” he thought, “to deny the endocrine reactivation methods any general objective value and dismiss their successes as pure workings of mental suggestion.” It was, perhaps, the excessive initial hopefulness that led to the excessive disappointment, to a general dismissal of all that was valuable in these methods. Despite all the deficiencies in observation and presentation, the accumulated materials nonetheless demonstrated beneficial effects in a considerable proportion of cases, both in animals and humans. “Undoubtedly,” Romeis concluded, “endocrine organs and their secretions became a valuable aid in the struggle against age-related phenomena, especially when these phenomena depend on endocrine function.”[cccviii] Such means were seen as particularly successful in cases of premature aging. Still, at the present, the risks far outweighed the benefits.
The mechanisms of action of these interventions became clearer by the time of Romeis’s writing, helping to specify the relative advantages of the interventions, the rates of their success and failure, the indications and forecasts for their use. Thus, the rejuvenation methods were divided into two groups, according to their mechanism of action. The first (“autoplastic”) group involved the destruction of extant sex gland tissues and subsequent release of stimulating “breakdown products.” The group included Steinach’s vasoligation and albugineatomy, Ullmann’s decortication, Michalowsky’s testicle ligation, Lebedinsky’s testicle smashing, X-ray irradiation, and intensive diathermy. With these methods, the effects would only be temporary, as there was only a limited amount of tissue to be destroyed. The “temporary refreshing is bought at the price of a dangerous lasting deterioration of testicular tissue” and in cases of highly atrophied or wasted tissue, i.e. in advanced senescence, no effects could be expected. The second (“homoplastic/heteroplastic”) group involved true supplementation, that is, the introduction into the host of additional reserve materials via transplantation of sex glands (as done by Harms, Steinach and Voronoff) or injection of sex gland extracts. Such methods had the advantage that they left the host’s own sex gland tissue intact and could be used even in cases of advanced atrophy and performed repeatedly. Yet, with these methods, there was a constant danger of rejection by the host and uncontrollable “breakdown” of the transplants and supplements. Doppler’s chemical sympathectomy, with a subsequent improvement of sex gland blood supply and secretion, was in a category of its own, though it was closer to the first (“autoplastic”) category. For this method as well, clinical evidence was scant, and there arose the possibility of deregulating the entire organism by preferentially stimulating one of its subsystems. In all these methods, the optimal effect could be achieved when the host’s own sex gland secretory function could be stimulated. The possibility of such a “revitalization” of the host’s own glands was suggested by animal experiments for Steinach’s vasoligation and for the transplantation of ovaries and testicles. Unfortunately for humans, neither for men nor for women was there any objective evidence for such a “revitalization” or “regeneration.” The possibility also arose that the pituitary, regulating the activity of the sex glands, could be a primary target for anti-aging interventions, yet clinical evidence was lacking and the mechanism remained uncertain.[cccix]
Romeis further emphasized the temporary nature of all the present rejuvenation methods. In fact, even such an enthusiastic rejuvenator as Harms posed some temporal limits on the effectiveness of rejuvenation, due to the constancy of nerve and sensory cells in the body and their irreversible degeneration. The possibility of immortality for human beings, similar to the immortality of unicellular organisms, was unequivocally rejected. Nonetheless, the frequent assumption that the rejuvenation methods lead to an exhaustion of the organism’s “last reserves” due to over-stimulation was said to be in no way supported by evidence (no such “exhaustion” had been shown in animal studies, rather the opposite). The fact that the aging processes are subject to endocrine manipulation, of course, did not mean that the involution (degeneration) of certain endocrine glands, e.g. sex glands or the pituitary, is the primary cause of aging. No morphological or functional evidence had yet been given for such a “primitive conception of the aging process.” Nonetheless, Romeis concluded, the works of Harms and Steinach, as well as other proponents of endocrine rejuvenation, “founded a fruitful field of work in the study of aging processes. And this is evidenced by the great number of problems posed, most of which however remain unresolved.”[cccx]
Romeis’s work illustrates the beginning and the end of the rejuvenation movement of the 1920s. It showcases the prevailing explanations for precisely why this was considered a “failure.” The rejuvenation methods were found thoroughly wanting. They did not fulfill the high popular expectations associated with them. Indeed, these methods demonstrated “some effects,” such as increased appetite, improved libido and work power, in a large percentage of cases. Yet, these effects were mostly temporary and unpredictable, confounded by an immensity of other contributing factors and relativized by (mostly unknown) individual idiosyncrasies of each and every patient. The evidence presented was often doctored or even falsified, and in any case contradictory and inconclusive. Surgical rejuvenation could not in principle be widely practicable, as the operations were complex, costly, time and skilled-labor-consuming (by the 1930s, perhaps only a few thousand such operations were performed worldwide). As for the cheaper and more widely available hormonal supplements, their effects were so little known that the consumers took them at their own peril. At any rate, neither operative nor supplementary rejuvenating methods provided any real evidence for a significant life-extension. The dominant theories of aging of the 1920s, emphasizing the primary role of particular (mainly endocrine) organs in the aging process and in the reestablishment of organic equilibrium upon rejuvenation, were also found to be too rudimentary and restricted, requiring a profound elaboration. These might be some of the reasons why, in the 1930s, the very term “rejuvenation” was rapidly disappearing from the scientific literature. According to Nathan Shock’s Classified Bibliography of Gerontology and Geriatrics (1951, 1957, 1963), the number of publications on “rejuvenation” dropped from a maximum of 27 in 1928 to a minimum of 2 in 1940.[cccxi]
The disappointment of biomedical researchers with the existing surgical or organotherapeutic rejuvenation methods was overwhelming. With the original research programs failing, where was the life-extension movement to go from there? Several options emerged and were pursued: Giving up entirely on the dream of the prolongation of life; lowering the expectations and aspirations to almost a zero; or else continuing to peddle unproved remedies. Another option was to embark on extensive “further research” that could take indefinite time (perhaps centuries) until producing any real means to combat aging. A converse option was to disengage from any “reductionist” and “artificial” surgical and pharmacological interventions, but rather embrace a “holistic” and “natural” macrobiotic life-style. In its extreme manifestation, the latter option would involve discarding scientific research altogether and instead cultivating the meditative power of the mind in order to wish longevity into existence. In a more practical and common manifestation, the abandonment of “reductionist” methods would lead to an emphasis on the practice of such health and longevity regimens that have not changed much since the time of Hippocrates, and with similar, by no means negligible, but nonetheless limited effects. Another way out was, instead of actual research and practice, to immerse in entertaining literary fantasies, spawning utopian and dystopian visions, trying to prove to the readers and to oneself whether and why we “should” or “should not” extend our existence. The life-extensionists of the 1930s reacted in all these different ways, though combinations of the various responses were not uncommon.
Setting any definitive temporal or local “trends” in the life-extensionist intellectual movement is extremely difficult and necessarily involves a large measure of impressionism, as many “tendencies” existed in one and the same time, and the continuity and interrelatedness of different approaches were often unbreakable. However, it appears that in particular countries, some reactions were more popular than others. Thus, as we shall see further on, in the UK from the 1920s to the 1930s, from Bernard Shaw to Aldous Huxley, literary representations, pondering the social and ethical implications of possible increases in longevity, seem to have been more prominent than actual research and practice. In the USSR and the US, in the 1930s, the slogans demanding “Further Research” were conspicuous. In contemporary France and Germany, a shift of emphasis seems to have occurred from the “reductionist” and “artificial” rejuvenation to “holistic” and “natural” ways of life-preservation. The shifts of emphases in the discourse on longevity were not exclusively determined by internal scientific arguments (deriving from the scientific failure of endocrine rejuvenation), but were to a large extent influenced by the social and ideological atmosphere of the period in each particular context.
4. Going the “Nature’s way”
“Natural” approaches to life-extension indeed rose to preeminence in Germany in the 1930s. The opposition between “natural” and “artificial” methods for life-prolongation in early twentieth century Germany has been noted earlier. The German historian Heiko Stoff in Ewige Jugend. Konzepte der Verjüngung vom späten 19. Jahrhundert bis ins Dritte Reich (Eternal Youth. Concepts of Rejuvenation from the late 19th century until the Third Reich, 2004)[cccxii] distinguished between “natural rejuvenation” involving “strengthening of the body mainly by naturist health measures, physical culture and public health practices” and “artificial rejuvenation” based on “surgical and hormone-therapeutic optimization.”[cccxiii] Furthermore, he distinguished between “productivist” and “consumerist” perceptions of a rejuvenated body.[cccxiv] The “productivist” approach implied that the restored youth and healthy longevity were mainly seen as a means toward social productivity and were associated with “natural” rejuvenation (that is, with work on the individual and public body). The “consumerist” approach, on the other hand, perceived youth-restoring and life-extending means as something to be bought and enjoyed and was linked with “artificial” rejuvenation (operations and supplements being the commodity). According to Stoff, “the end of the rejuvenation hype at the beginning of the 1930s is due to the scientific-sociological fact that rejuvenation, through so many substitutions, could not achieve any stability.”[cccxv] “The peak of consumerism,” Stoff noted, “was over by the end of the 1920s in all transatlantic societies.” From that period onward, “rejuvenation meant work, separation of sexes, purity, sobriety. It was the ‘German Rejuvenation’ which translated productivist rejuvenation into selective treatments, the separation of the dead from the living, the young from the old, the Aryan from the Jew.”[cccxvi]
However, as mentioned, the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” means of rejuvenation was made in Germany as early as Goethe, and even earlier. It is extremely difficult to set in stone any definitive temporal and local “trends” and separate “periods” in the pursuit of life-extension. It should be noted, for example, that even at the peak of the “rejuvenation hype” in the 1920s, endocrine rejuvenation was practiced by only a negligible proportion of the population (perhaps thousands operated and tens of thousands taking organotherapeutic supplements worldwide), leaving the rest of the world unaffected or even unfamiliar with these methods. In contrast, some forms of physical culture and “healthy diet” could always be practiced by almost anybody. Thus “natural” means could have always predominated over the “artificial” ones in popular practice. In the literature, however, the trends might be different. Indeed, in the scientific and popular-scientific literature, the “artificial methods” may “leap to the eye” in the 1920s and disappear from view later on. On the other hand, with all the valorization of the “natural means,” hormonal and other pharmacological supplements for rejuvenation and life-extension did not vanish from the German market, in fact their consumption only increased (as will be discussed). The attitudes to life-extension in Nazi Germany may perhaps be better described by what the historians Paul Weindling and Robert Proctor termed a corporate “polycentric” and “polycratic”[cccxvii] system of views, when they referred to Nazi health care and Nazi society generally, rather than by any definitive “trend.” Heiko Stoff’s book virtually did not discuss the attitudes to rejuvenation, even less the general attitudes to life-extension in Nazi Germany. Nonetheless, the life-extension movement did exist in Nazi Germany and many of its central proponents indeed weighed heavily (though not exclusively) in favor of “natural” macrobiotic health regimens, despite many antagonistic undercurrents.
The war-mongering atmosphere of the Nazi period was not especially conducive to research and advocacy of radical life-extension. The survival of the group (the society) was often valorized over individual survival. Moreover, the public discourse dominant at that period praised a “noble” and “heroic” death, as can be seen in the contemporary propaganda in public media and literary fiction. The leitmotif of individual sacrifice was ubiquitous: from propaganda posters through leaders’ speeches to biology textbooks.[cccxviii] The old battle cry of Friedrich the Great: “Hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben?” (Dogs, do you want to live forever?),[cccxix] could well describe such a sacrificial attitude. Notably, not only was there the demand to literally lay down one’s life during the war, but also to give up convenience, rest and leisure in favor of production and war effort. Honors and ideals of various kinds, including such fetishes as the glory of the leader or the land, were considered more valuable than life. The Nazi theorists appropriated a very selective view of the value of an individual life. The life of a less physically capable person was considered worth less than that of a young healthy individual (hence the extensive Nazi use of euthanasia, sterilization, and concentration camps for the physically and mentally disabled). Most notoriously, the tenets of racial hygiene assigned less or no value to the lives of persons considered racially inferior.[cccxx] The elimination of “parasites” and conquest of “living space” from others were advocated.
However, the lives of the members of the “superior” race were considered valuable. Massive hygienic, epidemiological and prophylactic measures were undertaken in Germany to improve public health-care and health-span. Such hygienic measures are comprehensively described in Robert Proctor’s The Nazi War on Cancer (1999).[cccxxi] As Proctor pointed out, “the Nazi campaign against tobacco and the ‘whole-bread-operation’ are, in some sense, as fascist as the yellow stars and the death camps.” It were perhaps first and foremost the hygienic measures that made Nazism attractive: “Appreciating these complexities may open our eyes to new kinds of continuities binding the past to the present; it may also allow us better to see how fascism triumphed in the first place.”[cccxxii] I would like to note, however, that the aspiration to strengthening the body (e.g. making people fit for battle) was by no means equivalent to aspirations to increasing longevity. As Hufeland first suggested, health and vigor are not tantamount to a long life, as immoderately vigorous activity may burn out the reserves of the life force and cause an early demise.[cccxxiii] The powerful Nietzschean Übermensch is not necessarily long-lived; on the contrary, he is more likely to be short-lived, as he burns in the ecstasy of life’s struggle (which follows from Nietzsche’s own teachings).[cccxxiv]
Nonetheless, despite the diverse ideological undercurrents antagonistic to the very idea of life prolongation, advice on individual life extension formed a substantial part of the Nazi “polycentric” health movement. In these counsels, “natural” hygienic life style improvements were emphasized, as the German society was supposed to be reverting to a “natural” and therefore “healthy” state of the nation.[cccxxv] The strengthening and prolongation of individual life were often seen as necessary conditions for the strengthening and maintenance of the National Body (Volkskörper), mainly understood as the national society at large, integrating the bodies of every member of the nation. The ultimate hope was the perpetuation of the ruling order, the “Thousand Year Reich.” Beside the valorization of the “natural” hygienic approach, the “national” emphasis appears to be defining, the “natural” and “national” becoming closely linked. The “national” discourse focused almost exclusively on German accomplishments, and praised at the same time the authoritarian power of the medical-political leadership and the collective will power of the entire nation. Rather than antagonistic, the massive enthusiasm from below and the authoritarian rule from above were posed as mutually reinforcing in the attempt to create a long-enduring “National Body.”
5. Life-extension imposed from above – Ludwig Roemheld (1871-1938)
A number of works on life-extension were published in Nazi Germany. A prime example is the book by the prominent German physician Ludwig Roemheld (1871-1938), Wie verlängere ich mein Leben? (How Do I Prolong My Life?).[cccxxvi] Dr. Ludwig Roemheld of Gundelsheim in Baden-Württemberg, the discoverer of the “Roemheld Syndrome” (or gastro-cardiac syndrome, where bowel flatulence produces symptoms similar to a heart attack), was a highly respected figure in the German medical establishment. His longevity manual How Do I Prolong My Life? was first presented on March 17, 1933, at the initiative of the executive committee of the Württemberg regional Red Cross Association (shortly after National Socialism officially came to power on January 30, 1933). It was a call to action for German health professionals and laymen to improve the health and prolong the life-span of the nation. The book enjoyed extreme popularity and underwent several reprints. During the war, it was still used as an inspirational manifesto. The last (third) edition appeared at the height of Nazi expansion, in May 1941, after the author’s death, and was accompanied by an introduction by his son, L. Roemheld, a military field physician. Roemheld Jr. recommended the book as a means to improve national strength and endurance, and basically implied that the German people have to be fit and vigorous to demolish/outlive their enemies:[cccxxvii]
Indeed, in today’s time of war, the pieces of advice of this concise guide to a healthy and life-prolonging life-course have a particular significance. The present time imposes on every German person special challenges. The impending danger of increased and untimely consumption of irreplaceable health assets, for the individual and for the whole nation, becomes a crucial problem. Indeed, in these times requiring from the entire nation the highest daily performance, the physicians have a heightened duty to act as attentive and knowledgeable guardians for the good of health of every single fellow national. But also, every single individual has, in such times, the undeniable duty to practice a healthy and expedient life-style in order to maintain and increase his productivity. Thus, in this time of war, the new edition of my father’s work will be a commendable contribution to our struggle.
According to Ludwig Roemheld, a radical prolongation of life could be achieved in the future through eugenics, through the “promotion of marriage of young people stemming from particularly healthy and long-lived families.”[cccxxviii] (To recall, the “Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring” – Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses – was enacted in Germany on July 14, 1933.) But before that happy, eugenically enhanced future comes, the presently-available means toward longevity was a healthy, “natural” hygienic life-style. The short-term goals of life-prolongation were relatively modest. Roemheld quoted the rising life-expectancy in European nations as proof of a continuous trend toward increasing longevity, and as an indication that the life-span of 70-80 years is “achievable by almost everyone.”[cccxxix] Hygiene was stated to play a crucial role in increasing longevity. Sanatorium health care was mentioned in the first place. Roemheld, himself a sanatorium physician, did not wish his work to be seen exclusively as “propaganda of sanatorium care.”[cccxxx] Yet he did claim that, “undoubtedly there is a causal relation between sanatorium care and life-extension.”[cccxxxi] He admired the practice of American insurance companies who obliged the ensured to undergo sanatorium care, and reported the plans to enact such practices in Germany. And indeed, from 1933 to 1938, sanatorium and tourism programs, such as “Kraft durch Freude” (Strength through Joy) of the German Labor Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront), involved millions of German citizens. Roemheld’s more general aim was to show “how, on the basis of today’s state of medical science, our life can be prolonged and indeed is being prolonged.”
The progress of medical science and improving general social conditions were attributed the leading role in increasing longevity: “The medical science,” Roemheld asserted, “in fact succeeded in considerably prolonging the life of people in cultured countries, as the overall material progress of wide masses was advanced due to the increasing social consciousness in these countries.” Among the social conditions and regimentations conducive to longevity, Roemheld named the avoidance of “disorderly life” (e.g. alcoholism), entering the life-prolonging bond of marriage, practice of certain professions characterized by higher longevity, especially the agricultural work. “Beside the general improvement of social conditions,” Roemheld wrote, “it is first and foremost the grand achievements of hygienic science, particularly the successes of bacteriology in combating infant mortality and epidemics that markedly reduced general mortality.”[cccxxxii] Apart from inoculations and antiseptics, the struggle with infectious diseases was furthered by “measures of prophylaxis and isolation.” The contribution of German scientists to this struggle was said to be decisive: “Indeed, we Germans can be proud of what we contributed to the world in the medical field in terms of life extension.” Also in combating life-shortening chronic diseases thanks to internal medicine, ‘Germany comes first.’[cccxxxiii]
Nationalist undertones apart, Roemheld’s major thesis was that the prolongation of life, “this main wish and main purpose of humanity,” is an integral, perhaps even a definitive product of general medical progress. “Medical science,” he emphasized, “in the matter of fact, very considerably prolongs people’s lives.” Therefore, he called to stop all those who “decry our so-called ‘scholarly medicine’ and drivel about a ‘crisis of medicine’… Science will continue to achieve further successes in this direction.”[cccxxxiv] He believed that “the first condition for life-prolongation” is that “every single person undergoes, from time to time, medical examination and consultation, even when he feels healthy.” Similarly to regular maintenance checkups of an automobile, “the most perfect machine” – the human body – also needs recurrent checkups and maintenance. “Only continuous medical control and surveillance” can achieve “rational prevention of diseases” and, as a consequence, can lead to a successful “postponement of death” and “prolongation of the life-span.” It was thus Roemheld’s central premise that in order to achieve life-extension, each and every individual needs to submit to medical authority. He expressed this imperative repeatedly, and in most unambiguous terms. The means for such a constant control may be massive state-sponsored and insurance-company-sponsored screenings, as well as the surveillance, from “cradle to grave,” by the “old fashioned” family physician. “Only when the entire life-course follows modern medical knowledge, when effort and relaxation, work and rest are supervised by the physician – it will be possible to balance out the dangers of our civilization and defend ourselves in advance against their health-damaging effects.”[cccxxxv] Despite this praise of centralized medical control, the individual was assigned an essential responsibility for prolonging his or her own life. The physician, however, would provide the guiding directions. The physician and the patient must work in close rapport, to “approach the goal of life-extension for the individual and for the entire nation.” The use of a set of simple hygienic rules by individuals who “adhere to life, however bad their conditions” may help achieve this goal.
Roemheld’s practical recommendations, self-admittedly, stemmed from Hufeland’s Macrobiotics (which was at the time of Roemheld’s writing massively reprinted), with some minor modifications derived from recent research. According to Roemheld, Hufeland’s basic rule for life extension remained valid: “we need to avoid everything that shortens life, and do everything that serves to prolong life.”[cccxxxvi] The “unnatural” life-shortening factors that “diminish our life-force” or “damage our organs” fully complied with the traditional perspective.[cccxxxvii] These factors included:
Hereditary burden with predisposition to diseases and short life span, weakly upbringing, softening, overexcitement of the nervous system, depravities of any kind, excessive exertions, especially the hurry and unrest so often present in our modern life, insufficient balancing by sports, holidays and mental relaxation, overburdening of the body, especially of the aged and untrained individuals, unhygienic life-style, bad housing conditions, undernourishment on the one hand and lack of moderation in food and drink on the other, life-shortening moods and passions, poisons such as nicotine, concentrated alcohol, morphine, cocaine, diseases of every kind.
The life-prolonging means, on the other hand, were proposed to begin at birth, or even before birth. The choice of healthy parentage, though without any direct benefits to the parents themselves, would ensure “healthy heredity” for the children and would improve their chances for a long life. And the survival ability of the offspring would be facilitated by their “strict and energetic physical and mental upbringing,” by the “hardening and strengthening of the body and soul” from an early age.[cccxxxviii] For all ages, “the struggle against aging rests on these three pillars:  sufficient and all-round movement in fresh air, if possible in the sun;  correct, healthy and moderate nutrition; and  efficient and complete rest periods with sufficient sleep.” Several particular measures were recommended: first and foremost exercise, “hardening” (Abhärtung) by cool air and water baths, moderate and balanced nutrition rich in fiber and vitamins.[cccxxxix] Roemheld’s favorite recommendation for life-extension was “Diaphragmatic breathing” or “Abdominal breathing” whereby, he suggested, “gymnastic exercise of the circulation system” can be achieved. Roemheld self-confessedly borrowed the idea from Taoist and Yogic breathing techniques, yet thanks to his popularization efforts, “diaphragmatic breathing” became a massive practice in Europe and carried Roemheld’s name.[cccxl]
The most universal suggestions for life-prolongation were the regularity and constancy of the life-style, moderation and an optimistic worldview: “Equanimity, inner contentedness and stability, stand in the first line of defense against early wearing out.”[cccxli] This suggested a general mental stance for a society desiring a prolonged existence: the stance of contentedness, even indifference (Gleichmut), the stance of “inner and outer calmness, regularity and constancy of life.” The society was required to promote this stance, to establish a balanced, constant and regular life-course for its citizens. “Work is good for people, idleness is bad” Roemheld preached, “nonetheless, overwork and rash, exhausting, irregular life under constant stress and anxiety shorten the life-span.” German social legislation was said to have achieved much in regulating work hours, giving each individual the opportunity for restorative rest and exercise, for the “hygienic enjoyment of all that nature and art have to offer.” The massive activities of the German Labor Front to provide “every individual with necessary means of recreation” were highly praised. The “efforts of the Reich’s health leadership against excessive consumption of stimulants” (“enjoyment poisons” - genussgifte) were also hailed, first of all the fight against the poison of nicotine, but also the crackdown on narcotics: morphine and cocaine. (Moderate consumption of alcohol and coffee was tolerated.) Through the combined efforts of the state as the health-legislative authority, the physicians as the advisory, supervising and executive authority, and each and every individual as a compliant and responsible agent, the goals of “People’s health and prolongation of life for each individual” were hoped to be accomplished. Thus life-extensionism was adjusted to the ruling political regime.
The promotion of “natural” hygienic regimens was said to be central to this joint effort. The emphasis on “natural” hygienic regimens for life-extension may have partly arisen from the failure of earlier “artificial” and reductionist rejuvenation attempts. Roemheld was no therapeutic nihilist and perceived clinical medicine as a crucial force in the struggle for longevity. Nonetheless, he was acutely suspicious of “magic means to defeat aging and death” actively promulgated in contemporary popular and medical press.[cccxlii] Indeed, according to Roemheld, rejuvenating power may reside in sex glands, as the immortality of the human race is insured by the immortal germ cells. However, “the experiments of Steinach and Voronoff only succeeded to occasionally reawaken the reproductive ability and prolong the life of single individuals for a few years.” The rejuvenation operations were only given to a few, and successful for even fewer “particularly suitable” patients. “For the general prolongation of life,” Roemheld contended, “these operations that are still in experimental stages, give nothing.” Indeed, certain chemicals and operations might prove effective in animal experiments, and could sometimes be used in humans under proper medical control. “Yet all these treatments only work temporarily and only in connection with a rational life-style.” Thus pharmacological and operative interventions were removed to the background, and the hygienic life-style became central.
Furthermore, it was implied, the “natural” hygienic life-style must necessarily be holistic. No single hygienic measure alone was said to be sufficient for life-extension, but only their combination. No single measure could be a “cure-all.” The true path to longevity, Roemheld affirmed, lies in “eclecticism” – the avoidance of “one-sidedness” and “overexertion” during the entire life course.[cccxliii] Another crucial factor in the pursuit of life-extension was said to be the consideration of each person as an individual and as a whole. “There can be no two people with the same daily regimen,” Roemheld observed. For some, a certain amount of physical exertion or a certain diet can be beneficial; for others this can be deadly. It was the proclaimed duty of the physician to provide general guidelines and render judgment for each individual case. Thus, a clear shift of emphasis occurred from “reductionist” and “artificial” life-extensionism, emphasizing particular pharmacological or operative means, to a more “holistic” and “natural” hygienic approach seeking to deploy a combination of life-style improvements personally suited for each individual.
A question may arise: How could this admission of individuality coexist with the praises of central authority, with assigning to the state the leading role in regulating people’s lives for the purposes of stability, health and longevity, for the nation and every one of its members? An answer may derive from the fact that Roemheld’s discussion of individuality was primarily addressed to physicians. The medical apparatus and its practitioners needed to be knowledgeable and powerful enough to understand and carry out a verdict for each individual case, while the individual patient was seen as largely incompetent. Another possibility is that the mention of individuality was really negligible: the set of general “guidelines” of the medical/hygienic science would be sufficiently valid to apply to very wide segments of the population, and there would be no place for any outstanding idiosyncrasies. A compromising answer could be that, while the central (medical) authority was seen as the most knowledgeable and powerful, lay individuals were still granted a (minor) part of the responsibility for their own longevity and that of the nation, especially in areas not requiring particular expertise. But their actions should better conform to the generally prescribed guidelines.
More general questions arise: Would people buy their longevity at the cost of a complete submission to the authority and the unswerving obedience to prescribed regimens and guidelines of conduct? (Or would they even buy it at the cost of devoting too much effort to their study and adoption?) And if the central guidelines proved to be wrong or disastrous, who would carry the responsibility and consequences: the guideline givers or those who implement them? These are some of the questions that arise from the consideration of Roemheld’s teachings. Whatever the answers, Roemheld’s work represented a consistent form of life-extensionist philosophy under National Socialism, where macrobiotic hygiene was perceived as a practicable joint effort of the state, medical authority, and each and every individual, united for the purposes of personal and social stability and endurance and for the perpetuation of the existing social order.
6. Life-extension driven from below – Gerhard Venzmer (1893-1986)
Another life-extension manifesto – Gerhard Venzmer’s Lang leben und jung bleiben! (Live long and stay young!)[cccxliv] – was written along very similar lines. However, Venzmer’s book assigned a greater role to each and every individual for extending their longevity, than to the physicians’ guild. Venzmer’s work was perhaps one of the most widely read life-extension manuals in Nazi Germany, having undergone several reprints from 1937 to 1941. The Doctor of Philosophy and of Medicine Gerhard Venzmer of Stuttgart was one the best known popularizers of life sciences in Germany, since the 1920s well into the 1950s, having written many books on diverse aspects of biomedicine, with a peak of acclaim during the Nazi period, with hundreds of thousands of copies in circulation.
According to Venzmer, the pursuit of life-extension is the fundamental desire of human beings and derives from the primordial, unalienable “will to life.” [cccxlv]
This will to life … is the only unchangeable, unconditional property of every living creature, the core of its existence. … Its force puts to shame all the opinions that teach otherwise. Philosophers and poets may try to convince us that ‘Life is not the highest value’ and that the ‘Gods let die those whom they love.’ If mortals had not the will to live, and the primordial drive for self-preservation had not run in their veins, there would have long been not a single living creature on our planet.
The will to life-extension is a natural extension of the will to life: “No wonder then, that the desire for the prolongation of life beyond its natural limits and for the attainment of eternal youth has been the oldest desire of humanity.” Indeed, Venzmer believed that “immortality does not avail human beings”; folklore throughout history attests to the popular aversion against “emulating gods,” and attempts to achieve “eternal youth” are doomed to failure. Nonetheless, a radical prolongation of life is both desirable and possible: “presently, for the first time in history, we have succeeded in winning considerable ground in the struggle against the inexorable death.” Public hygiene and medical science were said to be the most significant contributors to the increase in longevity, with a long road of achievements ahead.[cccxlvi] Venzmer admitted that the estimates of the “natural” human life span vary greatly among different researchers. According to some, we are far from reaching our full potential for life given us by nature, hence a long road ahead. According to others, we have already partly overcome our “natural” limitations, demonstrating the great human capacity for progress. In both cases, the prolongation of life is both desirable and possible: “we really still stand in the midst of a rise in the average term of life; and who shall tell us that this development is at its end?”[cccxlvii]
Venzmer’s writings again point to two hallmark concepts in German life-extensionism of the period: the praise of the existing social order and the valorization of a “natural” hygienic life-style. There is an implied adoration of the existing social conditions. “Never before,” Venzmer claimed, “was life so inexhaustibly rich in events and forms as now, never before were we so full of hopes, having so short a time for their fulfillment; with the progress of our technologies and our transportation, never before had man so many opportunities, if only he had the time.” Such an admiration of present-day achievements can be found in many life-extensionist authors across the world and throughout the century. In Venzmer, however, the “richness of events and forms” was considered to be inherent to contemporary Germany. Healthy life-extension was a tool to conserve the present happy state. It was, above all, an instrument for the strengthening and perpetuation of the “national body.” It was a means to harmonize and stabilize the society by integrating the elderly. Their continuous productivity and contentedness, through healthy life extension, were considered to be some of the principal aims for the general social stabilization:[cccxlviii]
What [the national community] needs is that the aged classes of society remain fresh and vigorous, ready for deployment and capable to fight for existence by their own strength. … Good health and long life are gifts that cannot be valued highly enough, and must be carefully protected and cultivated. Whoever does not take this into account in his life-course, but rather behaves carelessly with this good granted him, transgresses not only against himself, but no less against the national community to which he belongs.
As a stabilizing social mechanism, the pursuit of life-extension first and foremost focused on the German national society. It seems that no ostensible “Nordic supremacism” can be found in Venzmer’s writings. Rather, the will to life and life-extension were considered to be universal throughout the world and throughout history: “In ancient Greece, Persia and India, all wisdom began when scholars recognized that a healthy, long life is the first human duty and the first condition of human dignity.”[cccxlix] Moreover, the way of life of “cultured nations” is not necessarily superior, perhaps even inferior, to that of “natural nations” and non-Westerners generally, particularly the “vast populations of the Asian part of the world.” Their life-style was presumably healthier, better agreeing with natural laws, and more conducive to a long life. Westerners, and Germans in particular, it was asserted, could learn much from the life-style of these peoples (including the Chinese, Indians, Bulgarians, Eskimos, etc.) to increase the durability of the German people. Researchers from many countries were cited, including the French Louis Pasteur and C.E. Brown-Séquard, and the English Joseph Lister and Karl Pearson. American eugenicists and life-extension researchers were admired the most: Alexis Carrel, Raymond Pearl, Eugene Fisk, Alexander Bell, James Slonaker and Thomas Card. One can but remember the famous Nazi propaganda poster Wir stehen nicht allein: "We do not stand alone," of March 1936, listing the countries where, as in Germany, eugenic laws were passed (the US, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland) or considered (Hungary, the UK, Switzerland, Poland, Japan, Latvia, and Lithuania) – with the American flag in the upper position.[cccl] Also, at about the same time, the Nazi sports movement culminated with the World Olympic Games in Berlin in August 1936. Venzmer’s work (written in 1936) too testifies to the desire to see the German nation as a powerful and proud member of the multi-national community.
The displayed attitude of the Germans to other nations was that of a mixed desire for recognition, pride and competitiveness. Thus, when discussing the relative longevity advantages of different professions, Venzmer cited British and French data about the unequal life-expectancy for different social strata. “Such profound differences in the average life-expectancy,” Venzmer claimed, “can of course only be possible in countries with strong social oppositions.”[cccli] In the presumably more egalitarian National Socialist state, such inequalities are leveling out. The high mortality rates for certain professions can only occur in societies where “protections against accidents and professional diseases are not nearly as highly developed as in our country now.” The current German social laws were said to be vastly superior. The contemporary German society provided to its citizens facilities for recreation, accessible to “people of lesser means.” On the other hand, as early retirement might pose grave dangers to individual health and induce high mortality risks, the state encouraged a continuous professional occupation of the elderly.[ccclii]
There appeared to be an on-going competition between the Germans and other peoples in terms of health and longevity. For example, Venzmer noted the low blood pressure of the Americans, the high of the French, the Germans occupying a middle position.[cccliii] Venzmer did admire the American eugenic science and the successes of American life insurance companies who obliged the insured to undergo preventive medical examinations, prophylactic measures and health education programs, gaining immense dividends from the resulting healthy life-extension. (Such practices by the American Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and the health education campaigns by the American Life Extension Institute were hailed by Roemheld as well.) Nonetheless, some sense of superiority over the Americans is noticeable:[cccliv]
The author must recall New York fast food restaurants where the hectic stock-market people, standing in front of a sort of a bar, swallow up their dinner, constantly looking at the watch and holding a stock-market bulletin in the free hand. No wonder the incidence of stomach diseases is the highest in the United States, exacerbated by the Americans’ love for cold water and cold drinks – all the things that people should not do!
This repelling picture was countered by the portrayal of sturdy, long-lived German peasants. Besides the peasants, Prussian soldiers (such as the Prussian soldier Peter Mittelstedt, allegedly having lived for 112 years, from 1681 to 1792, out of which serving in the army for 67 years and participating in 17 major battles) were particularly noted for their longevity.[ccclv] Venzmer allowed no equivocation that the primary goal of the German life-extension movement was to uphold the German national body and the National Socialist order.
The nationalist attitude was further exemplified by the fact that, in Venzmer, German researchers were assigned the primary role in the development of biomedicine generally and longevity research in particular. To the German achievements in hygiene and microbiology, it was claimed, we largely owe the actual increases in our life-expectancy, thanks to the studies of Robert Koch, Emil Adolf von Behring, Max Joseph von Pettenkofer and Carl von Voit.[ccclvi] In the research of aging and longevity, German scientists too were said to occupy the central place, the hall of fame spanning from Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836) to Emil Abderhalden (1877-1950).[ccclvii] In contemporary times as well, German researchers were declared to stand in the frontline of the struggle for life-prolongation, doing ground-breaking work in the research and application of epidemiology, improvements in life style and nutrition, particularly the administration of vitamins.[ccclviii]
Among the many German life-extending projects, the anti-tobacco campaign was waged by Fritz Lickint. The life-prolonging breathing exercises or “gymnastics of the cardiovascular system” were recommended by Lothar Tirala and Ludwig Roemheld. The importance of physical exercise (particularly walking) against age-related cardiovascular diseases was emphasized by Julius Hermann Greeff. (Greeff was the author of apparently one of the world’s first dedicated studies of centenarians, published in 1933.[ccclix] Some of his findings may appear surprising even now.[ccclx]) Relaxation techniques against cardiovascular and nervous diseases were suggested by Karl Fahrenkamp.[ccclxi] All these means were recommended by Venzmer as essential props to strengthen the vitality of the individual, and to maintain the entire “National Body.” The emphasis on “natural” preventive measures was overwhelming and was well in line with the “natural” and “holistic” teachings of the “father of Nazi medicine” Erwin Liek.[ccclxii] Not only German scientists, but also German men of letters were hailed as heroes of the life-extension movement. The foremost among them was Goethe (1749-1832) whose long life, marked by productivity, mental acuity and sexual potency to the very end, was the example to follow. Goethe’s own reflections on a long, healthy and creative life were quoted throughout.[ccclxiii] Thus, German intellectuals appeared to be the central agents in the multi-national research community. Foreign intellectuals and non-German folk customs were also given some space, though only a subordinate one.
It seems the only exception to this multi-national conglomerate were the Jews. Jewish scientists seem to be completely written out of Venzmer’s account, whether they are from Germany or elsewhere. Thus, for example, when speaking of suspended animation, the groundbreaking contributions of Jacques Loeb (a German-born American Jew) were not acknowledged. When discussing rejuvenative transplants in animals (or parabiosis), the work of Paul Kammerer (an Austrian Jew) was not referenced. When promoting vitamins, Tadeus Reichstein (a Polish/Swiss Jew) was forgotten. When speaking of the “struggle with premature aging by active substances,” Venzmer did not refer to the original works of Jewish scientists on endocrine rejuvenation, first and foremost, the French/Russian/Jewish Voronoff and the Austrian/Jewish Steinach, but also many German Jews, such as Magnus Hirschfeld, Bernhard Schapiro and Max Hirsch. When discussing the proliferation of connective tissue during aging or the benefits of fermented milk products, the Russian/French/Jewish Metchnikoff was left out. In Venzmer’s account, it appeared that the main contribution of Metchnikoff (referred to as a “Russian zoologist and bacteriologist”) to longevity research was the finding of living spermatozoa in centenarians, which were also found by the German biologist Waldeyer.[ccclxiv] (Heinrich Wilhelm von Waldeyer, 1836-1921, was indeed a very prominent researcher, having consolidated the neuron theory of the nervous system and having coined the term “chromosome.”[ccclxv] However, Metchnikoff’s contribution to the theory of aging evidently was somewhat greater in scope and impact.) The very concept of rejuvenation (or “mechanistic/artificial/reductionist” rejuvenation), in Venzmer’s account, underwent a thorough process of reformulation, even euphemization. It may not be accidental that the writing out of “rejuvenation” coincided with the writing out of Jewish researchers who were uncommonly active in that area. (This coincidence would be hardly surprising, since, as shown by the American historian of science Anne Harrington, in Nazi Germany, anything reductionist and “mechanistic” was commonly associated with the Jews, and it was believed that “the Jewish mind was fundamentally analytic, dissolutive and materialistic.”[ccclxvi]) The omission of the Jews may be yet another example of the first hallmark feature of German life-extensionism of the period – its nationalism.[ccclxvii]
Venzmer’s attitude to “rejuvenation” may also be a prime example for the second pervasive feature of the contemporary German struggle for longevity – the valorization of “natural” holistic hygiene over “artificial” and reductionist rejuvenative surgery and pharmacology. The very term “rejuvenation” was vilified: “The word ‘rejuvenation’, Venzmer wrote, “was earlier severely abused. Overreaching reports, much more ‘sensational’ than factual, awakened false hopes, which were necessarily followed by bitter disappointments. All the endeavors to fight premature aging were thereby made ‘unsavory.’” In place of the “unsavory” (anrüchig) rejuvenation procedures, there comes the “natural” and holistic self-help:[ccclxviii]
The desire to “rejuvenate” a person who ages harmoniously as an entire organism is as absurd as it is superfluous. However, the situation is different when, due to whatever influences, the entire organism or its individual parts age before their time. Then, one can attempt to counter the premature aging processes through diverse natural self-help means described here. For now, these means are still insufficiently effective and medical science constantly seeks new special biological ways, known only to nature itself, to refresh and revitalize the organism which aged prematurely. The natural means described here, have already returned to many prematurely aged people their zest for life, freshness and work capacity. These means, however, have not the least to do with the unsavory concept of ‘rejuvenation’ of the past which only deserves ridicule. (Emphasis in the original.)
Thus, with a few rhetorical moves – the verbal substitution of “revitalization” for “rejuvenation” and the “combat against premature aging” for “reversing the aging process” – Venzmer steered clear of earlier failed practices and paved the way toward the emphasis on natural hygiene. Of course, the distinction of “premature aging” from “natural aging” would be extremely difficult, and Venzmer did not provide this distinction. But to combat a “premature” (and thus unnatural) process sounded much more respectable than trying to reverse or postpone “natural aging” which would mean going against nature itself.
These renunciations of “artificial rejuvenation,” however, did not mean that Venzmer entirely rejected hormone supplements.[ccclxix] He recognized the immense role of hormones (particularly sex hormones) in human vitality and was one of the strongest supporters of “the science of human types” (Typenlehre) largely based on different hormone levels in different human types and races.[ccclxx] In Live Long and Stay Young, the hormonal, vitamin and mineral supplements were said to be “by no means unnatural interventions,” no “foreign chemical poisons, but natural substances produced by the organism itself.”[ccclxxi] The administration of these “natural” supplements could balance out “discords of civilization” – “haste, competition, ever increasing demands for productivity.” Such means would eliminate “disorderliness,” “depression,” “fatigue,” “sense of self-insufficiency,” “dissatisfaction.” Instead, they would enhance “posture, decisiveness, concentration, zest for work, responsibility, general satisfaction with life, improve sleep and blood pressure, in short ‘refresh’ the entire personality.”[ccclxxii] Thus, the supplements would induce a person into an adaptive and compliant state. “The purpose [of supplements],” Venzmer affirmed, “is to maintain and improve the vital activity of the entire organism for as long as possible, and so preserve or renew the harmony of the whole that can be endangered by premature aging” (emphasis in the original). In short, the supplements could be a harmonizing, stabilizing and equilibrating force for the individual and for the German society as a whole.
Venzmer’s ‘Ode to Nature’ and to social stability may appear paradoxical. On the one hand, its conservative proclivities were unmistakable: modern society was said to bring in its wake a host of “unnatural” life-shortening conditions that needed to be corrected or adapted to. Yet, at the same time, modern science (particularly medical science) and current social health programs were hailed as the primary contributors to increasing longevity. The second apparent contradiction was that although a “natural” hygienic life-style was valorized over “artificial” surgery and pharmacology (including hormonal supplements), the latter were nonetheless included in the macrobiotic arsenal. These contradictions are not too difficult to resolve. It is easy to acknowledge that “science” and “civilization” may have both beneficial and adverse effects on health and longevity. The benefits (e.g. subduing infectious diseases or establishing “facilities for recreation accessible to people of lesser means”) are to be enjoyed and promoted. The detriments (such as “haste, competition, and ever increasing demands for productivity”) are to be adapted to and endured. Notably, Venzmer did not advocate the elimination of “competition” or “demands for productivity” but rather suggested the use of hygienic regimens and supplements so that the individual may become better adapted and compliant with these conditions. The individual body was seen as a “cell state,” and the “national body” (or the state) was composed of individuals who must “feel a part of the whole” and work compliantly with that whole. Thus, again, life-extension can be seen as an instrument for the perpetuation of the existing social order in its entirety.
As for extolling “nature” over artificiality, this appears to be a largely semantic distinction. Any medical intervention (including pharmacology and surgery) could be claimed to be based on “natural laws” or assisting the “healing power of nature.” The supplements, in particular, could always be declared “natural” substances. Modern science could always be purported to “confirm the ancient wisdom” of “peoples living naturally”[ccclxxiii] or help humanity to live in accord with natural laws, or to master them. In any case, whatever the degree of the supplements’ ‘naturalness,’ they only represented a very minor and highly contentious element among the suggested “natural” hygienic means for life-extension.
One such “natural” means was eugenics, or “choosing parents” for the better health and longevity of the offspring. (The idea could be traced back to Hufeland, who posited “good physical descent” as the first among the “means which prolong life.”[ccclxxiv]) Venzmer acknowledged a strong hereditary component in longevity, based on studies of twins and on the relatively high longevity of descendants of long-lived families. He was also the author of a popular sympathetic commentary on the recently passed “Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring” (Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses, 1933). Under that law about 400,000 German citizens were to be sterilized.[ccclxxv] The commentary was entitled Erbmasse und Krankheit. Erbliche Leiden und ihre Bekämpfung (Heredity and Disease. Hereditary Suffering and its Elimination, first published in 1933, republished in 1940), and was endorsed by Dr. Karl Ludwig Lechler, head of the Racial-Political Office of Württemberg-Hohenzollern. Of course, eugenics could also be branded “natural,” as selection for vigor has been occurring in nature for eons, and eugenics was seen just as its logical continuation. As Venzmer stated bluntly in Heredity and Disease (1940), “in Nature, the eradication of the weak, the sick, the incapable of life, is generally self-understood.” Moreover, he sympathized with the exterminations of the weak among the “natural peoples” – the warring and hunting-gathering tribes of Africa, Australia and the Far North, battling for survival. He very much resented the intervention of “colonial governments” into such “natural” and “time-honored” practices. Though, Venzmer made sure to add, “of course what applies to a primitive natural people cannot be readily applied in a civilized national community. And so the eradiation of hereditary diseased individuals, when they already exist, obviously cannot be conducted in a similar, sometimes cruel and inhumane manner.” Only the sterilization of the “hereditary diseased” was permissible and desirable, both to prevent the “passing on of their suffering to their children” and to decrease their “burden” on the “healthy population.”[ccclxxvi]
Yet, in Live Long and Stay Young, interventions into heredity were assigned even less importance than rejuvenative supplements:[ccclxxvii]
Is the duration of our life only determined by heredity? Does the time during which we wander this earth depend exclusively on the predispositions given us by the reproductive cells of our parents? Is the day ordained when the Reaper will beckon us with his bony finger? If it was so, we should, like Muslims believing in “Kismet” [Fate], resignedly wait for our last hour. How we live our life would mean nothing for life’s duration, whether we are restful or hectic, calm or constantly irritated, whether we spend our days rationally and naturally or untimely ruin our body by unnatural influences and poisons. It would all be the same, … our end would be determined already in the cradle, in the womb, or even at the moment of conception. … Fortunately, such reasoning is wrong. Personal life-style plays no lesser role than heredity in determining our life-span. The gods, according to the Greek proverb, not only reward sweat with success, but also reward a rational and natural life-style with great longevity and good health until very late years.
The weightiest components in the “rational and natural life-style” were the good old Hippocratic/Hufelandian macrobiotic rules. The rules focused on diet, weighing the relative merits of vegetarian, unprocessed (Rohkost), mixed (Mischkost) and alternate (Wechselkost) foods.[ccclxxviii] They advised that the “means of enjoyment” should not become “poisons.”[ccclxxix] They further recommended rest and exercise, cleanliness, moderation and peace of mind – a good-natured piece of advice for good-natured German citizens.[ccclxxx] Venzmer literally begged his readers to dedicate a few minutes a day to exercise and consideration of a rational life-course, to extend both the personal and national life-span (apparently not all German citizens were at the moment marching and saluting, but quietly reading books about health and longevity). Many of these bits of advice may be not entirely out of place even now.
Generally, mental self-affirmation and “spiritual hygiene” were said to be the most important factors for life-prolongation.[ccclxxxi] “Anger and dissatisfaction,” on the other hand, were the primary factors shortening life. The first recommendation “when annoyed” was “to ask oneself, whether the upsetting situation is worth destroying our brain cells, and furthermore, whether the situation will be improved by our anger.” The prolonged maintenance of both the individual and national body required that the citizens should constantly maintain a stance of contentedness. “A cheerful, happy state of mind,” “enjoyment of life,” constant smile, courage, and, most importantly, trust in the society and social involvement, are life-prolonging; while “mistrust,” “wariness,” “secretiveness,” “withdrawal,” “loneliness,” “sulkiness,” “sense of self-insufficiency and failure” damage the individual and the nation. The person must “affirm and not deny, reconcile and not disgruntle, be cheerful and not moody, enlighten and not just burn.” In short, to live long, the person needs to be a cheerful and accommodating part of the current social order. As for virtually all life-extension advocates under consideration, for Venzmer too, the sustained bodily and social equilibrium was the ultimate goal. Here, specifically, the equilibrium of the national body was sought for. Individual mental balance, the “inner equilibrium and order,” involving a calm and jolly attitude, were the first conditions for the attainment of the general bodily and social equilibrium.
The ability and readiness to work to extreme old age were further highly prized conditions for the individual and national stability: “The awareness that anyone of us can carry on his duty, within the limits of one’s capacity, that anyone can strive for perfection, ensures a balanced state of the soul, the true inner harmony which is the necessary condition for becoming old and yet remaining young.”[ccclxxxii] This referred not only to the spiritual sphere, but also to manufacturing: “The leaders of economy determined that the workers’ productivity, between ages 30 to 70, does not substantially change, if they behave healthily.” The life-extensionist envisioned an idyllic, harmonious social state where the aged would be perfectly integrated into the society, forming a “union with the young”:[ccclxxxiii]
Only the cooperation of the parts can lead to a harmony of the whole. … As necessary is the youth, with its zest and fire, for the development of the nation, so indispensable is the old age with its experience and wisdom of life… A nation without the youth is like a body without a heart, but a nation without the old is like a body without a head.
Yet, Venzmer asserted that the integration and utilization of the aged should not be “overreaching,” but must recognize their physical limitations. Furthermore, the productive activities of the aged must be based on the principle of “constancy,” according to which “everything which falls beyond the boundaries of the usual or upsets the established life-habits… endangers the aged organism.” The fulfillment of all these conditions was hoped to lead to the ultimate goal of the life-extensionist program in Germany: the conservation of its social order.
All of Venzmer’s recommendations may be summarized by two slogans: “Feel a part of the National Body” and “Connect to Nature.” The nationalist emphasis and the praise of a “natural” macrobiotic life-style appeared to be the major themes in German life-extensionist thought of the period, recurring in several other contemporary authors. Both themes were underscored by the desire to indefinitely maintain the social and bodily equilibrium. Thus, Dr. Sigismund Thaddea from the Charité University Medical Center in Berlin spoke in the Monthly of the Main Office of the NSDAP and the National Socialist Medical Association about the importance of healthy longevity and continuous employment of people of higher age for sustaining the national economy. He claimed that “the deficit of work power in the work market necessitates the increased employment of people of higher age” (1940). The goal was to attain “natural aging” through the “hygienic ordering of daily life.”[ccclxxxiv]
Dr. Johannes Steudel of Leipzig, in “Zur Geschichte der Lehre von den Greisenkrankheiten” (On the history of the study of the diseases of old age, 1942),[ccclxxxv] also emphasized national survival. Like Roemheld and Venzmer, he assigned to German scientists (such as Johann Bernhard Fischer, Burkhard Wilhelm Seiler, Carl Canstatt, Carl Mettenheimer, Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland and others) the crucial role in the history of aging and longevity research, overshadowing the works of other nationals, particularly the French. The emphasis was on “hygienic-dietetic regulations” and “morphological and functional changes” and there was no mention of rejuvenative interventions at all. According to Steudel, the purpose of the entire field of aging and longevity research is to facilitate the employment of the aged in national economy:
As the age statistics show, the average life-span of people in all cultured nations grows. Even without considering the impact of the war, we have to deal with the increase of the elderly in the population. The proportion of their demand for help must be at least as large as their proportion in the population. Therefore the efforts of the research of aging and clinical study of age-related diseases make sense. The necessity to make useful the work power of the aged in the economy, imparts on these studies a great practical value.
Fundamental Health Improvement: Full Power, Success, Rejuvenation (Gründliche Gesundung. Vollkraft, Erfolg, Verjüngung, 1937) by Dr. Wladislaw Klimaszewski of Munich,represented the same tendencies. In the section on “Rejuvenation,” the “connection to nature” was strong: virtually all the recommendations concerned natural hygienic, dietary and psychological regimens, with an overwhelming emphasis on the revitalizing power of the mind. The only thing said about Steinach’s rejuvenative operations was that “even though interesting, they are not yet ripe for practical human application.” The nationalist elements were also strong: “The profound will to life, to durable full power, rises in millions of hearts” pointing “the way to longevity for our race.” And, as in all the above contemporary German authors, increasing healthy longevity was perceived to be absolutely vital for the German national economy: “through the correct way of life … everyone will remain capable of work.”[ccclxxxvi]
The necessity to integrate the aged into the German national economy also justified the studies of Emil Abderhalden and Max Bürger who, in 1938, established a journal dedicated specifically to aging and longevity – Zeitschrift für Altersforschung (Journal for Aging Research, Dresden-Leipzig) – the third such specialized journal in the world.[ccclxxxvii] They too were highly suspicious of any “unnatural”/”rejuvenative” intrusions. The first two specialized gerontological journals emerged in other fascist-allied countries: Acta Gerontologica Japonica grounded in Japan by the Yokufukai society in 1930,[ccclxxxviii] and Altersprobleme: Zeitschrift für Internationale Altersforschung und Altersbekämpfung - Problems of Aging: Journal for the International Study and Combat of Aging, founded in 1937 by Dimu Anatoli Kotsovsky, in Kishinev, Moldova, then part of the Kingdom of Great Romania.[ccclxxxix]
7. Basic research – Hans Driesch (1867-1941), Emil Abderhalden (1877-1950)
Abderhalden and Bürger were among the central figures in German longevity research in the 1930s-1940s. The commendation of a “natural” hygienic life-course was eminent in their conceptions of aging. In the introduction to the first issue of the Zeitschrift für Altersforschung,[cccxc] they spoke about the “natural” or “normal thread of life” leading to inexorable death. Yet they suggested that this “natural” life-span is greatly curtailed by “unnatural” influences and that it is the task of the researchers of aging to identify and counter these influences. The practical aim of this research was to suggest a “natural” life style that would lead to a significant extension of health and productivity. Hence, applied and basic gerontological research occupied the central place in the journal. Not only Abderhalden and Bürger, but Venzmer too spoke about the importance of basic research and theories of aging for discovering life-extending regimens. Yet, in fact, the actual input from the current theories of aging (such as the colloidal condensation theory) into actual macrobiotic regimens was minimal. Venzmer’s manual included virtually no practical hygienic recommendations that would have been unheard of by Hufeland or even by Hippocrates. Similarly, Max Bürger’s definitive work Altern und Krankheit[cccxci] (Aging and Disease, first published in 1947, republished in 1954, with most of the materials collected up to 1945) was a massive and authoritative monograph, containing a vast amount of basic information on the morphology and physiology of age-related processes and diseases. Yet, its practical recommendations virtually consisted of a few pages reaffirming Hufeland’s “natural” macrobiotic principles of exercise, rest, moderation in diet and optimism.[cccxcii]
Nonetheless, basic longevity research did continue in Nazi Germany on a large scale, as a part of its massive basic research in life sciences.[cccxciii] Some of the leading German basic longevity researchers of the 1920s faded into oblivion, but others continued to flourish well until the end of the Nazi regime, and even later. Benno Romeis (1888-1971), in the 1920s an enthusiast and in the 1930s a critic of rejuvenation, was promoted in 1944 to become a full professor and director of the Institute for Anatomy, Histology and Experimental Biology at the University of Munich. The surgeon Ernst Ferdinand Sauerbruch (1875-1951) continued to experiment with rejuvenating sex gland operations, at least as late as 1939, while directing the Surgical Department at the Charité University Medical Center in Berlin.[cccxciv] One of the foremost researchers of sex hormone therapy, Adolf Butenandt (1903-1995), joined the NSDAP in 1936, and in the same year became the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (later the Max Planck Institute) for Biochemistry in Berlin. After the war, Butenandt remained highly influential, serving as the president of the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, from 1960 to 1972. Another keen researcher of hormone therapy and rejuvenation was the Nobel-prize winning Austrian neurologist, president of the Austrian League for National Regeneration and Heredity, Julius Wagner-Jauregg (1857-1940). He continued to work on the problems of aging and longevity to his last days.[cccxcv]
Several basic researchers of aging were prominent in the 1920s. Eugen Korschelt (1858-1946) focused on comparative longevity and regeneration. Samson Hirsch elaborated on “changes in the cooperation of activities, rhythm and regulation” during the aging process. Jürgen Wilhelm Harms (1858-1956) excelled not only in rejuvenative operations on humans, but also in basic life-extension experiments on lower animals. Max Hartmann (1876-1962) proved the possibility of individual immortality. By preventing the spatial expansion or reducing the size of simple multi-cellular organisms, such as flatworms, he was able to maintain them virtually indefinitely. Hans Driesch (1867-1941) posited the immaterial life-force or “entelechy” as the primary determinant of the material life-span, and argued for the ability of the life-force to regenerate the body, or even perpetuate it indefinitely, as in the case of immortal protozoa. Driesch further speculated about the conservation of the life-force or the soul after death.[cccxcvi] In 1926, these authors joined forces to produce a highly popular compendium, Leben, Altern, Tod (Life, Aging, Death), altogether confirming the theoretical possibility of “potential immortality of living matter,” “rejuvenation” and “life-prolongation.”[cccxcvii]
The authors’ paths diverged in the 1930s. Hirsch immigrated to Belgium and continued his research there in relative obscurity.[cccxcviii] The fate of Korschelt and Harms is unclear, except that they continued to publish well to the end of their days, though in a diminishing extent.[cccxcix] Hartmann and Driesch, on the other hand, rose in prominence. In 1934, Max Hartmann was appointed an honorary professor at the University of Berlin, and in 1939 he became a co-editor of the journal Der Biologe (The Biologist), the monthly of the Reich Association for Biology, Division of Life- and Racial Sciences of the National Socialist Teachers League (Nationalsozialistischer Lehrerbund, NSLB) and the Research Society of the German Ancestral Heritage (Forschungsgemeinschaft Deutsches Ahnenerbe) affiliated with the Schutzstaffel (SS – Defense Corps). (Hartmann apparently failed to advise his affiliates on the life-shortening effects of spatial expansion.)
Hans Driesch, by the early 1930s, seems to have lost interest in the problems of aging and longevity, and firmly established himself in the realm of the occult and paranormal. The importance of extending this earthly life was overshadowed by the promise of spiritual immortality and by the fascinating world of extra-sensory perception, telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis, and contacts with the “field of souls” beyond, which he purported to study empirically. As, according to Driesch, the physical development and regeneration are determined by the workings of the immaterial “entelechy,” so, he argued, “materialization is just paranormal embryology.”[cd] Driesch’s excursions into the paranormal were frowned upon by many Nazi officials during the first years of the regime. Yet, it is also known that many of the Nazi leadership and party base were far from being averse to the occult and paranormal.[cdi] And Driesch remained a foremost authority in that area of study well through and after the end of the Nazi period.
Extensive research of the paranormal was carried out by Driesch’s devoted follower, the parapsychologist Hans Bender (1907-1991), at the “Paracelsus-Institut” in Strasbourg, around 1943-1944, in Germany-annexed Alsace. Besides parapsychology, the Paracelsus Institute in Strasbourg was also involved in the research of various types of healing: by magnets, geological and cosmic influences, natural herbal remedies and the revitalizing power of the mind.[cdii] (Do not confuse Bender’s Institute with the “Paracelsus Institute” established in 1935 in Nuremberg, Bavaria,[cdiii] under the direction of the oncologist Dr. Wilhelm von Brehmer (1883-1958),[cdiv] or the “Paracelsus Institute” founded in 1951 in Bad Hall, Austria,[cdv] or several other “Paracelsus Institutes” across the world[cdvi] – all having a strong relation with “natural,” “spiritual,” “vitalistic” or “holistic” healing, rejuvenation and life-extension, in accord with the strong interest in these subjects by the German-Swiss rejuvenator Paracelsus himself, 1493-1541.) Despite Driesch’s shift of emphasis from this-worldly to other-worldly life, the influence of his vitalistic teachings on aging and longevity research continued throughout and beyond the Nazi period, particularly through the work of his most dedicated proponent, the Leipzig internist and gerontologist Max Bürger.
The founders of the Zeitschrift für Altersforschung, Emil Abderhalden and Max Bürger, indeed played a crucial role in the German longevity research and life-extension movement of the 1930s-1940s. Emil Abderhalden (1877-1950) was higher in rank. Though Swiss by birth, he served as the chair of physiology at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, for most of his career, and was the president of the German Academy of Natural Scientists “Leopoldina” from 1931 officially until 1950 (he was de facto replaced in the post by Otto Schlüter in 1945).
The historian Paul Weindling singled out Abderhalden’s research as particularly supportive of the Nazi ideology:[cdvii]
The biochemist, Abderhalden, regarded proteins as racial characters. He argued that proteins took a key role in heredity and attempted to explain genetic mutations by an interaction of proteins in the reproductive glands. He undertook experiments on different species of rabbit, and suggested research on twins with comparison of each twin’s blood protein and injections to modify the protein structure.… Between April 1943 and March 1944 Abderhalden co-operated with the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology for research on the racial specificity of proteins. … Abderhalden… provides a classic example of the transition of science from being a means of social emancipation to one of racial persecution with his commitments to temperance, family welfare and medical ethics, since he ultimately provided the scientific rationale for the human experiments by [Josef] Mengele and [Otmar] Verschuer.
Recently, several historians accused Abderhalden of a lack of scientific rigor or outright scientific fraud, particularly with regard to his theory of Abwehrfermente ("defense enzymes," namely, protein-degrading proteases) as primary agents of the immune defense. The detection of the “defense enzymes” via detection of tissue protein breakdown products (“the Abderhalden reaction”), Abderhalden claimed, could be used for diagnosis (from blood tests for pregnancy to infectious diseases and cancer, to the degree of senescence) and for immunotherapy. These claims have been rejected as unfounded.[cdviii] Earlier accounts, however, treated Abderhalden with much greater respect, both with regard to his ideological and scientific legacy.[cdix] Abderhalden’s scientific studies – on the protein degradation into polypeptides and amino-acids during digestion, the activity of various proteases, the synthesis of amino-acids into peptides, the discovery of essential amino-acids, the determination of the role of B vitamins for carbohydrate metabolism, the research of the thyroid hormone – were recognized as fundamental.[cdx]
These studies concerned the human organism generally, and the aging organism particularly (the latter field is usually omitted in the accounts of Abderhalden’s research). Yet, Abderhalden’s investigations into the “colloidal theory of aging,” his studies of changes in the water content of aging cells and tissues, changes in protein metabolism, the utilization of hormones and vitamins by the aged organism, age-related changes in morphology and pathology, the use of the Abderhalden reaction to detect senile degradation – all studied for the purposes of age-specific therapy and productive life extension – were among his central scientific pursuits.[cdxi] But perhaps Abderhalden’s greatest contribution to aging and longevity research was political. By lending his authority to this poorly established field, he became instrumental for its institutionalization in Germany and worldwide.
The fact remains that Abderhalden, occupying one of the highest positions in the Nazi scientific establishment, coexisted perfectly with the regime and only reinforced its prestige. After the end of the war, in 1945, Abderhalden was forced to leave Germany and return to Switzerland, where he served as a teacher of physiological chemistry at the University of Zurich until the end of his days. Nonetheless, the implication of Abderhalden as an intellectual mentor of Mengele appears to be an exaggeration. Abderhalden’s work may have influenced Mengele in no greater measure than it influenced scores of other researchers of enzymology and protein biology around the world and throughout the century (by the 1950s, studies testing the Abderhalden reaction counted by the hundreds). In a more charitable account, Abderhalden’s research of “proteins as racial characters” might be seen as pioneering for modern human molecular genetics, where the consideration of ethnic differences is believed to be crucial both for the fundamental understanding of heredity and for specifying and personalizing therapy for particular ethnic groups.[cdxii]
Paul Weindling described the “purpose” of Josef Mengele’s “research” in Auschwitz as follows:[cdxiii]
Mengele’s scientific aims drew on Verschuer’s method of twin research as the basis for hereditary pathology. [Miklós] Nyiszli related how experiments on living twins were complemented by pathological comparisons of healthy and diseased organs in twins, whom Mengele had killed for the purpose of simultaneous evaluation. Growth defects, reproductive biology resulting in twin births, variations like eye-color in twins, and characteristics of racial degeneration such as endocrine and anatomical anomalies were of interest.
According to the protocols of the Nuremberg trials of Nazi War Criminals, particularly the “Medical Case” (1946-1947), the horrendous human experiments in the Nazi concentration camps also included “Freezing experiments.” According to the indictments, “From about August 1942 to about May 1943 experiments were conducted at the Dachau Concentration Camp primarily for the benefit of the German Air Force to investigate the most effective means of treating persons who had been severely chilled or frozen. In one series of experiments the subjects were forced to remain in a tank of ice water for periods up to three hours….” Another set of “experiments” were “Bone, Muscle, and Nerve Regeneration and Bone Transplantation Experiments.” “From about September 1942 to about December 1943 experiments were conducted at the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for the benefit of the German Armed Forces to study bone, muscle, and nerve regeneration, and bone transplantation from one person to another. Sections of bones, muscles, and nerves were removed from the subjects. As a result of these operations, many victims suffered intense agony, mutilation, and permanent disability.”[cdxiv]
As the protocols make clear, the experiments in the concentration camps were conducted “for the benefit of the German Armed Forces,” to enhance the survival of soldiers on the battlefield. No reference to longevity could be found in these protocols. Yet, Venzmer’s popular scientific work attests to the wide general interest in prewar Germany in twin research as a means to determine environmental and hereditary components of longevity. (Venzmer made a special reference to the investigation of age-related deterioration in the eyes of twins, originally conducted at the University of Zurich.) Venzmer also discussed at length transplantation experiments in animals (salamanders), involving transplants from young to aged animals with general or local rejuvenating effects, as well as experiments inducing regeneration in these animals.[cdxv] Suspended animation, particularly by freezing, was also noted as a possible future means to radically extend the individual life-span. It might be an historical injustice to draw a direct continuum between comparative twin longevity studies, general investigations on regeneration, transplantation, hypothermia or suspended animation by freezing – such investigations began at least as early as the 19th century and are now conducted all over the world and believed by many to hold a key to improving health and longevity[cdxvi] – and the horrendous concentration camp experiments. Yet, the apparent topical similarities make one wonder whether, during the slaughter of the innocents in the concentration camp experiments, some thought has not been given to a general “rejuvenation” or “life-prolongation” for the “master race,” which would thus represent the most abhorrent form of “life-extensionism” one could imagine.[cdxvii] However, the limited data do not allow me to further speculate on this issue.[cdxviii]
8. Institutionalization of gerontology - Max Bürger (1885-1966)
The legacy of the second cofounder of the Zeitschrift für Altersforschung, Max Bürger, is much less controversial (possibly due to an almost complete lack of interest in his person by recent historical studies). Max Bürger was one of the leading German internists and gerontologists. He began his professorial career at the University of Kiel (from 1920 to 1928).[cdxix] There he developed “Osmotherapy” where by administering hypertonic solutions he was able to drain fluid-swollen tissues, particularly lung edema. (He began developing this therapy as a military field physician during WWI, to treat German soldiers poisoned by Phosgene gas in the chemical warfare.) In Kiel, he also worked on metabolic diseases (such as diabetes and protein deficiency) and “metabolic regeneration” or nutritional therapy (including the use of nutritional yeast as a supplement in cases of emaciation). He was also the doctoral advisor of Gerhard Domagk (1895-1964), the future inventor of anti-bacterial “sulfa drugs” and Nobel Laureate (the Nobel Prize was awarded in 1939 and accepted in 1947). From 1929 to 1931, Bürger worked at the Osnabrück hospital; and from 1931 to 1937, he served as a professor on the medical faculty of the University of Bonn. In Bonn, his research on aging became full-fledged. In 1937 he joined the NSDAP and was thereafter selected for the post of the director of the Leipzig University Medical Center. He remained in the post until his retirement in 1957. He led the Leipzig Medical Center with a firm hand through its initial modernization, the partial destruction by bombing raids, and reconstruction after the war. It became one of the major outposts in the struggle against outbreaks of epidemics (such as the outbreak of hepatitis in 1938 in Thalheim), and a major center of medical instruction, particularly for military physicians during the war.
Apparently, Bürger was no great Nazi ideologue or anti-Semite. His closest collaborator in Kiel in the 1920s was Georg Schlomka (the name indicates a Jewish origin[cdxx]) with whom Bürger cooperated extensively in the research of the aging processes, particularly on the morphological and chemical-physiological deterioration of “braditrophic” (slowly nourished) tissues (such as cartilage) and on the use of embryonic extracts as a rejuvenating medium.[cdxxi] Schlomka was also one of the contributors to the first issue of the Zeitschrift für Altersforschung in 1938. In that first issue, Bürger additionally cited several Jewish researchers, such as Eugen Steinach and Moisey Mühlmann, though omitting their nationality and criticizing their reductionist approach that reduced aging to an “involution” of a particular organ system (the sex glands or the brain, respectively). Bürger, moreover, took under his protection several colleagues threatened by Nazi persecutions, such as Karl Matthes who was married to a half-Jewish woman (this action would help to save Bürger’s career after the war). Nevertheless, Bürger’s adjustment to and support for the ruling regime were impeccable.
After the war, he rapidly adjusted to the new Socialist regime. After the occupation of Leipzig by the American troops on April 18, 1945, Bürger was slotted for transfer to the West (together with about 50 other Leipzig scientists), but refused to leave his hometown. On July 1, 1945, Leipzig was given over to the Red Army, to ensure the territorial continuity of the occupation zones. Bürger had to blend in. As a former NSDAP member, he was suspended from his post, but continued to work at his medical center as part of notdienstverpflichtung (necessary service duty). On October 1, 1947, he was officially reinstated, thanks to his dedication and professional capacities, but perhaps in no small measure thanks to his former acts of kindness, as in the case of Karl Matthes.
As Bürger had done nothing to destabilize the Nazi order, he thereafter did nothing to destabilize the new Socialist order, but strove to coexist with it in perfect harmony. On the occasion of the renewed publication of the Deutsche Zeitschrift für Verdauungs- und Stoffwechselkrankheiten (German Journal for Digestive and Metabolic Diseases, established in 1938 and renewed in 1949, where Bürger was one of the chief editors and contributors), Bürger expressed his great gratitude to the Soviet authorities: “We are thankful for this opportunity to the considerate officials of the Soviet Military Administration.”[cdxxii] At the congress of internists in Leipzig in 1955, Bürger nodded agreeably to the assertions of the minister of healthcare of the German Democratic Republic, Luitpold Steidle, who spoke about the problems of aging and longevity: [cdxxiii]
These are the questions that concern equally Materialists and Christians. The Christian sees this world as subordinate, but the Marxist works to fulfill the following demands: Redesign the world anew and better. Instead of making theories about the possible demise of humanity, actively master and reform the Earth. Engage all the means against the negative forces of destruction.
Bürger was later highly admired by a leading Soviet longevity researcher and official, president of the USSR Gerontological Society, Dmitry Chebotarev (1908-2005). Thus, Bürger’s biography provides yet another example of the high adaptability of life-extensionists to the current ideological and social milieu, as well as their role as advocates and agents for the stabilization and maintenance of the current social order.
Bürger’s basic experimental research of the aging processes, as well as his expertise in pharmacology and surgery, were extensive. Yet, his views on aging and longevity, as in fact the views of all the life-extensionists from the Nazi period discussed so far, weighed heavily toward “holistic” and “natural” hygiene, rather than “reductionist” pharmacology or surgery.[cdxxiv] A crucial role in Bürger’s theory was played by the “entelechy,” the good old Aristotelian/Hufelandian/Drieschian “whole-making, wholeness-ensuring vital factor” or “vital force” driving the transition from the potentiality to the actuality of life, its initial impulse and ultimate exhaustion.[cdxxv] In his adherence to the theory of “entelechy,” Bürger was perhaps the last follower of Driesch’s vitalism in the field of gerontology. (Interestingly, Bürger’s “vitalistic” and “holistic” views were tolerated by the East German and Soviet scientific establishments.) In Bürger’s definitive concept of “biomorphosis” or “biorhesis” – considering the entire development of the organism, instead of just “aging” late in life or “differentiation” early in life, and advocating the adjustment of treatments to different stages of the life-course – it is the inherited force of “entelechy” that determines the natural (and limited) duration of the human life-span.[cdxxvi] Nonetheless, Bürger suggested that under the current harmful habits, we are yet far from achieving our “natural life-span” and the current life-expectancy can be significantly prolonged. These were the central theses of Bürger crowning work in the field of gerontology, Altern und Krankheit (Aging and Disease, 1954, first published in 1947), yet he expressed similar views already in 1938.[cdxxvii]
Bürger was definitely not someone who could be called a “radical life-extensionist” or “immortalist.” In fact, no prominent “radical life-extensionists” or “immortalists” could be found in Germany, before, during or after National Socialism (unlike the US, UK, Russia and France). During the National Socialist period, the boldest aspiration that German longevity advocates expressed was a 200 year “natural” life-span, sanctified by Hufeland’s authority, but usually the desire of life-prolongation was limited to a century. Bürger too ventured no far-reaching forecasts, though he admitted the general theoretical possibility of life-extension above the current value. He was generally skeptical about “finding an elixir of life” or the possibility that an individual can “significantly exceed the life span allocated to the human species.” A far-reaching life-prolongation by “hormonal-chemical, organo-therapeutic or pharmacological means” was, according to him, not to be expected.[cdxxviii] Nevertheless, in Altern und Krankheit, in the chapter on “Macrobiotics,” Bürger did offer several suggestions toward a “moderate” life prolongation. Altern und Krankheit was a compendium of physiology. Yet, its practical advice, almost identical to that of the other contemporary German life-extensionists discussed so far, essentially amounted to Hufeland’s traditional rules of macrobiotic hygiene: moderation and keeping out of harm's ways, exercise in fresh air, baths, avoidance of stress, good breeding, no culinary excesses, no poisons, and a good sleep. The ultimate suggestion was to have the “Wisdom of Life and a Happy Mind.” Thus, Bürger followed the general “holistic” and “naturalistic” hygienic trend characteristic of the contemporary German life-extensionism.
Yet, Max Bürger’s major contributions to aging and longevity research appear to be political. Besides the establishment of the journal Zeitschrift für Altersforschung, he also founded in 1938 in Leipzig the "Deutsche Gesellschaft für Altersforschung," shortly after renamed “Deutsche Gesellschaft für Alternsforschung” – the "German Society for Aging Research" – apparently the first such specialized society in the world.[cdxxix] After the war, the society branched into the “Society for Aging Research of the German Democratic Republic” in East Germany (assuming this name in 1964 and initially presided over by Bürger’s student and historian, Werner Ries) and the “German Society for Gerontology” in West Germany (founded in 1966, initially chaired by Bürger’s colleague, René Schubert). After the reunification of Germany in 1990, the societies merged into the German Society of Gerontology and Geriatrics (DGGG).
To the present, gerontology remains strongly established in Germany, though radical life-extensionist aspirations appear to be hardly perceptible. Still, despite the relative absence of “radical” aspirations, longevity research does continue in Germany on a large scale: in experimental and clinical gerontology,[cdxxx] cryopreservation,[cdxxxi] demographics and genetics of longevity,[cdxxxii] bioinformatics of aging[cdxxxiii] and bioengineering,[cdxxxiv] with the involvement of anti-aging facilities[cdxxxv] and life-extension advocacy communities.[cdxxxvi] Nonetheless, radical life-extensionist hopes appear to have never been strongly pronounced in Germany, as compared to the other countries under consideration. At the present time as well, Germany’s impact in the global life-extensionist movement appears to be comparatively limited, and even smaller, relative to other Western countries, than it was early in the 20th century. The apparent trend toward a diminishing relative impact may not be dissimilar to that observed earlier for the case of France after the “holistic turn” and WWII.
9. Allies – The Kingdom of Great Romania. Dimu Kotsovsky (1896-1965?)
Bürger’s establishment in 1938 of the German Society for Aging Research predated that of the “British Club for Research on Aging” founded by Vladimir Korenchevsky in 1939 in the UK (renamed “The British Society for Research on Aging” in 1946),[cdxxxvii] as well as the American Geriatrics Society (1942) and the Gerontological Society of America (1945) led by Edmund Vincent Cowdry. The British and American associations would later become the basis for the establishment of the International Association of Gerontology (IAG) in 1950, which heralded a new period in the internationalization and institutionalization of gerontological research. Yet in 1938, Bürger’s society was the world’s first, and his journal was the world’s third and the West’s second, after the Japanese Acta Gerontologica Japonica (1930) and the Romanian Zeitschrift für Internationale Altersforschung und Altersbekämpfung (1937). Bürger’s society and journal became major venues for the cooperation of longevity scientists, namely, of those ready to cooperate with the National Socialist scientific establishment. WWII broke out shortly after the journal’s inauguration, in 1939, and, during the period of conflict, the vast majority of authors in the Zeitschrift für Altersforschung were German, yet also included authors from Japan,[cdxxxviii] Italy,[cdxxxix] Spain,[cdxl] Hungary,[cdxli] France,[cdxlii] Sweden, Denmark,[cdxliii] Romania, etc. Indeed, aging and longevity research spanned all the Axis powers and sympathetic regimes.
But perhaps the firmest stronghold of aging and longevity research was in Romania.[cdxliv] The Kingdom of Great Romania officially joined the Axis in 1940, with the establishment of the National Legionary State. But even before that, Romania maintained strong ties with Germany, including the scientific establishments. Aging and longevity research in Romania was traditionally among the strongest in Europe. One of the world-leading Romanian gerontologists from the fin-de-siècle well into the 1930s was Georges (Gheorghe) Marinesco (1863-1938) who predominantly studied the age-related deterioration of the brain. Marinesco was Metchnikoff’s primary contemporary scientific opponent, disputing Metchnikoff’s findings about the destructive activity of macrophages in the aging brain.[cdxlv] Instead, Marinesco focused on the balance between nerve cells and glial cells, the formation of granules in nerve cells as initial signs of aging, chemical synthesis and breakdown in the nerve cells. He also attempted to promote the chemical synthesis of the nerve cells, and thus retard their aging, by serums of young animals, extracts from young organs, and “mitogenic radiation” (the latter concept originated with the Russian biologist Alexander Gurwitsch in 1923). In 1913, Marinesco pioneered the colloidal condensation theory of aging,[cdxlvi] which became the dominant theory of aging (upheld by such authors as the Czech Vladislav Ruzicka and the French Auguste Lumière) well until the emergence of molecular-biological theories in the 1950s. Another prominent Romanian longevity scientist was Grigore Benetato (1905-1972) whose research started in the late 1930s and focused on age-related changes of cell colloids and their reversal by hormonal substances. Marinesco’s and Benetato’s laboratories, however, did not develop into institutes.
The world’s first Institute for The Study and Combat of Aging (Institutul Pentru Studierea si Combaterea Batranetii - Institut für Altersforschung und Altersbekämpfung) was established in Kishinev (Moldova, then part of Romania) in 1933 by a single man – Dimu Anatoli Kotsovsky. The institute was initially sustained by Kotsovsky’s own means, and was subsequently recognized by the Romanian government.[cdxlvii] Kotsovsky also founded in 1936 the first European (and the first Western) journal dedicated to the subjects of aging and longevity: the Institute’s Monatsberichte (monthly reports), renamed in 1937 Altersprobleme: Zeitschrift für Internationale Altersforschung und Altersbekämpfung (Problems of Aging: Journal for the International Study and Combat of Aging). Thus, Kotsovsky’s journal emerged before the inauguration of the German Zeitschrift für Altersforschung (1938) and much longer before the American Journal of Gerontology (1946) or the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (1953). Kotsovsky’s Monatsberichte and Altersprobleme published predominantly in German and in a lesser extent in French and English. More than 100 scientific institutions contacted and exchanged publications through the journal, including the US Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, the New York Neurological Institute, the London Royal Society of Medicine, the German Gesellschaft Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte, the French Académie des Sciences, the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, the Kiev Physiological Institute, etc. Like the journal, Kotsovsky’s Institute also became a center of international cooperation and knowledge exchange. The Institute’s honorary members included the renowned biochemists Emil Abderhalden and Casimir Funk, the physicians Max Bürger and Eugen Steinach, the philosopher Oswald Spengler, the Nobel Laureate in Physiology Hans Spemann, the Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Theodor Svedberg, and some 80 other prominent scientists, from the US and South America, throughout Europe, to Russia and Japan.[cdxlviii] According to Nathan Shock’s Classified Bibliography of Gerontology and Geriatrics (1951, 1957, 1963),[cdxlix] by the early 1960s, Kotsovsky was by far the most prolific author in the field of aging and longevity research (many of his publications appeared in his own journal). Despite Kotsovsky’s contributions, despite his priority in establishing the world’s first gerontological institute and the West’s first gerontological journal, his vast, painstaking work is now as much as entirely forgotten, even by the gerontological community.
Dimu Anatoli Kotsovsky was a confirmed life-extensionist who believed in the possibility of future life-prolongation to 200 years and beyond. He became active in the field of longevity research and advocacy since the early 1920s, with his first work on “The Origin of Senility” (Genezis Starosti) written in 1923.[cdl] A man of encyclopedic learning who wrote in German, French, English, Romanian, Italian and Russian, he published scores of articles on all aspects of rejuvenation and life-prolongation, including organotherapy and theories of senescence. Kotsovsky may be well considered as one of the pioneers of a “cataloguing” approach in aging research. In one review, he presented and synthesized over a hundred contemporary theories of aging.[cdli] He realized that the aging process can be countered by no “magic bullet,” by no single “rejuvenative operation,” and that massive collection of dispersed data from various fields of biomedicine is necessary before even beginning to understand, let alone intervene into such an immensely complex process as aging. In contrast to other contemporary Romanian gerontologists (Marinesco, Benetato, Parhon), who concentrated on particular aging processes and organ systems, Kotsovsky described his own research and that of the Institute for the Study and Combat of Aging as the “study of age from biological, medical, psychological, and sociological standpoints.”[cdlii] Thus, he may be considered one of the pioneers of the interdisciplinary approach in the study of aging and longevity.
In accord with his interdisciplinary orientation, Kotsovsky’s research interests varied greatly. He wrote on medical history and futurism, neo-Vitalism and neo-Darwinism, centenarians and abortions, thanatology and juvenology, heredity and environment. He wished to determine both the causes for the “acceleration” and “inhibition” of aging in men.[cdliii] He investigated both the “fundamental origin of senility” (disputing the inevitability of aging in multi-cellular organisms) and the aging of particular organ systems. He studied age-related damage in the brain and the nervous system (applying such diverse methods as surgical neuropathology, Pavlov’s reflexology, and biochemistry of brain lipoids), activation and inhibition of inner secretion (particularly considering the reactivating properties of sex hormones and insulin), age-related deterioration of the heart and the circulation system, blood biochemistry and gall formation. He was interested both in the course of specific diseases in the aged (e.g. coronary insufficiency and syphilis) and the “general symptoms” and “general pathology” of aging. He examined both the aging of living beings (comparative biology of aging) and non-living systems (the aging and reactivation in vitro of vitamins, hormones and enzymes). He attempted to discover general biochemical markers of aging, or the dynamic “aging reaction” (Altersreaktion) that would not only enable the evaluation of physiological age, but also aid in testing rejuvenative treatments. Kotsovsky’s “aging reaction” was largely determined by “acidity as an index of the aging reaction” and by “precipitation of proteins.”[cdliv]
Kotsovsky’s interests included basic experiment and theory, as well as practice. His practical recommendations for life-extension included both pharmacology and hygiene. He sought “substances for integral reactivation,” experimenting with specific nutritional supplements, such as blood and heart tissue from young animals. But hygiene too played a vital role in Kotsovsky’s considerations. He was a strong proponent of “Racial hygiene” as a practical means toward life-extension. In fact, his major programmatic article in Monatsberichte was on the relation between “racial hygiene” and “combating aging,” though the emphasis was on hygiene and the role of the central nervous system for life-extension, rather than the race.[cdlv] Both in Kotsovsky’s basic studies and hygienic recommendations, sleep was given a privileged position. From the late 1920s onward, Kotsovsky suggested rest and sleep to be major practical means for rejuvenation and longevity,[cdlvi] noting the direct relation between advanced aging and diminished sleep requirements, and terming rest and sleep as the principal “life defense function” in the struggle against disintegration and death.[cdlvii] Besides biological treatments, Kotsovsky also strongly emphasized the importance of psychological hygiene and social stability for healthy life-extension.[cdlviii] It appears that the only unifying characteristic of all of Kotsovsky’s diverse areas of study was the unrelenting search for life-prolonging means.
During WWII, Kotsovsky’s research continued to flourish and his cooperation with German scientists was strengthened. In fact, German-speaking journals were then the almost exclusive venue for his publications. Thus, among others, he contributed to the German journal Der Biologe (The Biologist), affiliated with the SS-Ahnenerbe and the Division of Life- and Racial Sciences of the National Socialist Teachers League. (The study was rather innocuous, concerning “Hormone effect on the aging of plants,”[cdlix] published in the journal alongside other harmless articles about birds’ flight and vision, pond and sea ecology, kinetic cell measurements, etc.). In that period, he also propagandized life-extension in Austrian journals (such as the Wiener Klinische Wochenschrift).[cdlx]
Perhaps due to this cooperation with German scientists or due to his support of “Racial hygiene” or, most likely, due to his outspoken anti-communist views, with the advance of Soviet troops in 1944, Kotsovsky had to flee Kishinev. (Even during the first Soviet occupation of Moldova, in 1940, Kotsovsky’s institute was closed and reopened again only with the temporary withdrawal of the Soviet government.) After 1944, Kotsovsky continued his academic pursuits “in exile” in Munich. In the 1950s, his studies proceeded along earlier lines, and had as great a scope as before. He continued to discuss the general theoretical questions about endogenous and exogenous factors in aging, its retardation and hastening, and the possibilities of rejuvenation and life-extension. Yet, the weight of his studies seems to have shifted toward practical problems of geriatrics. He wrote summaries of various therapies of the renal excretion, respiration and circulation systems in the aged, the use of sedatives and analgesics, cardiac drugs such as Angifin and Miroton, psychological adjustment in advanced age, and the importance of work for longevity.[cdlxi] Some of his works advocated the social acceptance of the aged and the “elimination of antagonism between age classes.”[cdlxii] His last books (self published) were on more general questions of history, philosophy and sociology: The Tragedy of Genius – Genius, Aging, Death (1959); The Problem of Aging in History – Attempt of a Biosocial Synthesis (1960); Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Bolshevism – On the Historical Responsibility of Writers (1960).[cdlxiii] But history, philosophy and sociology too were seen through the prism of longevity.
In The Tragedy of Genius – Genius, Aging, Death (1959), Kotsovsky analyzed the lives of scores of artists and scholars and established correlations between their psychological profiles and life-span, noting the longer life-span of the “classics” and the shorter of the “romantics.”[cdlxiv] In his attempt to understand the nature of creative genius, Kotsovsky came to the conclusion that all creative spirits were driven by the fear of death (Todesangst or Thanatokomplex) and by the desire for perpetuation, in accordance with Cicero’s dictum “Tota vita philosophorum mortis commentatio est” – “the whole life of a philosopher is the meditation on his death.” Life-extensionism is just a ramification of this perennial aspiration, attempting to treat the problem of death at its biological root: “Based on this desire for immortality (eternity), we can understand the striving of medicine to preserve the health and strength of youth against destructive natural forces and against the ‘entelechy of death’ of modern technology.”[cdlxv]
In The Problem of Aging in History – Attempt of a Biosocial Synthesis (1960), Kotsovsky drew parallels between aging bodies and aging societies. As the aging and death of an organism result from the “progressive, irreversible accumulation of toxic products of the organism’s own life activity, especially in highly differentiated tissues, and the impossibility of their excretion as a function of the organism’s development,” so the aging and demise of societies follow from the “progressive, irreversible accumulation of products of economic and cultural creative activity in highly differentiated social classes, and the impossibility of their excretion and exchange as a function of development.” In Kotsovsky’s holistic theory, “minimal excitations” stimulate the functional activity (either of the organism, the psyche, the nation, the state or the culture), “intermediate excitations” inhibit it, and “maximal excitations” destroy it. According to Kotsovsky, the aging of organisms and societies is, in most cases, inexorable. Nonetheless, there is a theoretical possibility for their rejuvenation and prolonged durability. The rejuvenation of societies can be achieved by “crossing of different nations” (parallel to biological conjugation), or by resettlement in a new territory (parallel to a “change of nutritional medium”). Kotsovsky believed the “crossing” or “resettlement” are difficult to achieve, but even without such measures, a significant extension of durability is possible through rational social conduct: “Insofar as the processes of aging in the individual can be slowed down by a rational life-style, and, in the modern times, even by artificial interventions, so it must be possible, if the correct diagnosis is made, to postpone the senile decay of nations. And conversely, erroneous leadership can bring about a premature destruction of the nation.”[cdlxvi]
Two elements stand out in Kotsovsky’s treatments of individual and social longevity, and they are very similar to those of his German colleagues of the late 1930s-early 1940s. One is the valorization of a “holistic” and “natural” approach to life-extension. Kotsovsky was a strong believer in the progress of science, in its ability to significantly prolong our lives. At the same time, his criticisms of the negative impacts on health and longevity by “civilization,” by science and technology, were recurrent. “Civilization” shortens life by intensifying the “life struggle,” by rapidly improving the means of mass destruction, by strengthening the feelings of insecurity and fear, by introducing harmful nutrition, by poisoning the body and the environment. According to Kotsovsky, the situation in the past was much more auspicious: “Certainly, our ancestors were biologically stronger and stouter than we are.” “Natural,” preventive hygiene was attributed by Kotsovsky the primary role in combating the life-shortening effects of “civilization,” as expressed in the following, somewhat paradoxical statements: [cdlxvii]
The civilization reduces the vitality of people and therefore shortens their life-span. Civilization accelerates ‘aging,’ even though, thanks to the progress of preventive medicine, it indirectly, in the course of the past hundred years, almost doubled the human life-span. … Man, that created culture and civilization, turns day by day into a slave of scientific and technological discoveries, leading to negative selection. This tragedy of modern humanity, created by the progress of science and technology, can be only eliminated by science.
Thus, according to Kotsovsky, science and technology solve the problems that they create; civilization shortens life while indirectly doubling it; and civilized men need to struggle both against “destructive natural forces” and the “entelechy of death [dead end] of technology.” Furthermore, the current technological “civilization” is rotten to the core, but needs to be vigorously protected. How can this paradoxical thinking be reconciled? One obvious solution may be the recognition by Kotsovsky of both positive (life-prolonging) and negative (life-shortening) effects of science and technology; the former need to be fostered, the latter opposed. Another solution (to which Kotsovsky seems to tend) may be the ultimate subordination of science and technology to a “natural,” hygienic way of life. Science may help to discover a life-style that would accord with “human nature,” but it cannot design or modify this nature at will. Kotsovsky seems to acknowledge both the hygienic “rational life-style” and “artificial [pharmacological/surgical] interventions” as possible means for life prolongation, yet he ultimately put more trust in “natural” macrobiotic hygiene (sleep, exercise, nutrition, cleanliness and optimism). And so weighed the preferences of Romeis, Roemheld, Venzmer and Bürger. After having vigorously pursued basic laboratory research, after having experimented with diverse “rejuvenative” interventions, Kotsovsky may have arrived at a partial disappointment and his focus shifted toward metaphysics and medical naturalism.
The second telling feature of Kotsovsky’s life-extensionist philosophy (as also the philosophy of virtually all the life-extensionists discussed in the present work) is the obsession with the “perpetuation of ideas” and the preservation of the social order, equilibrium and stability, or more precisely, the perpetuation of a particular social order to which the author felt belonging. Kotsovsky fully agreed with the poet Emanuel Geibel’s saying that “what the epoch possesses, hundreds of talents advertise.”[cdlxviii] In Kotsovsky’s last books, some of the views appeared as if still addressing a National Socialist audience, extending a nostalgic apology for an extinct ideological and social paradigm. (Kotsovsky admitted that his Tragedy of Genius and The Problem of Aging in History recapitulated his ideas expressed in the 1930s.) Thus, Kotsovsky spoke of the “civilization arriving from the forests of Germany that destroyed the Roman civilization. Will they now master the entire world or must all civilizations run through a certain course of development, marching through the times of flourishing, aging and death?”[cdlxix] “The society, as well as the culture,” Kotsovsky believed, “is a function of an interaction between two categories of factors: the racial characters of the nation or nations on the one hand, and their bio-social environment on the other.” The most urgent task is to fight the decay and demise of the white, Western nations:[cdlxx]
Comparative statistics and demography show that the majority of great powers populated by white nations already passed their zenith, and, in fact, in Western and Central Europe, the problem of the aging population is very urgent. When we also take into account certain colored races (the Japanese, the Negroes), then the problem of aging is actually no longer an abstract problem, but a mighty threat. Therefore, it is the duty of leading statesmen and scientists to do everything to postpone the senile decay of their nations.
Such statements could well have been made at a meeting of the “National-Socialist Teachers’ League.” Yet, they were written in 1960, in free, denazified West Germany. Some ideological adjustments had to be made. After all, according to Kotsovsky’s own definition, longevity is determined by the “ability to adjust to one’s environment, to persist steadfastly and maintain equilibrium in the face of destructive influences.”[cdlxxi] For example, the praise of freedom may have been highly likeable. And so, according to Kotsovsky, “the loss of freedom in all its forms depresses the entire life tonus and leads to premature vegetative fatigue, decrease of vitality, premature aging and finally shortening of life.” Kotsovsky, however, made sure to add that “there is no absolute freedom [independence of environment].”[cdlxxii]
Another notion that might have chimed well with many in West Germany was the unrestrained denunciation of Communism. According to Kotsovsky, Communism is either outright destructive or at the very least life-shortening. (As will be shown shortly, according to the majority of Soviet gerontologists of that period, there was not a single thing in the world that was more life-affirming and life-prolonging than Socialism. True Communism would be virtually synonymous with immortality.) As a true physiologist, Kotsovsky sought destabilizing and destructive agents in the individual and social organism. And he found such subversive agents in the entire ideology of Communism, and even more specifically in the persons of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Berdiaev who, according to Kotsovsky’s (quite original) theory, were largely responsible for the rise of Communism (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Bolshevism. On the historical responsibility of writers, 1960, written in Russian).[cdlxxiii] He also denounced Fascism (though this denouncement seems to somewhat jar with his former concern about the expansion of “certain colored races”). Communism, however, has the greatest destructive potential, it leads to “dehumanization, the denial of value of a person, narrowing of consciousness” and bloodshed. The underlying conservative, anti-revolutionary tone of Kotsovsky’s philosophy is unmistakable.
Kotsovsky’s works provide yet another example for the adjustment of life-extensionist philosophy to the ruling socio-ideological regime. This philosophy was both a product and advertisement of a particular social and ideological paradigm. Kotsovsky was perfectly adjusted to live and work in the Romanian Kingdom and the Romanian National Legionary State allied to the Axis. Yet, he was unable to survive in the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. Neither would he have a place in the Romanian People’s Republic. Emigration was the solution. In Western Germany, he found a society where he could fit in perfectly, and whose dominant anti-communist ideology was compatible with his own.
10. The Romanian People’s Republic – Constantin Ion Parhon (1874-1969) and Ana Aslan (1897-1988)
While anti-communists were purged from Romania, communist life-extensionists rose there to prominence. One of Romania’s and the world’s leading gerontologists and life-extension advocates was the endocrinologist Constantin Ion Parhon, one of the initiators of modern endocrinology, having coauthored with Moise Goldstein a definitive monograph on “Inner Secretions” in 1909.[cdlxxiv] Parhon was a veteran Marxist (self-allegedly from his teens), he was one of the founders of the Romanian Laborers Party (Partidul Muncitor) in 1919, and from 1921 onward was a staunch supporter of the Communist Party. Parhon’s pronounced communist predilections did not seem to greatly interfere with his career. From 1912 to 1933, he was Chair of the Department of Neurology at the University of Iasi, and from 1933 onward Chair of the Department of Endocrinology at the University of Bucharest. Even during the National Legionary regime and WWII, he retained his professorial post and membership in the Romanian Academy of Sciences.
Yet, after the war, thanks to his academic acclaim combined with his loyalty to the Communist Party, he was propelled to unprecedented distinction. After the abdication of King Michael I, in 1947 Parhon became President of the Presidium of the Romanian People’s Republic, and from 1948 to 1952 Chairman of the Great National Assembly (head of state), not to mention such posts as Honorary President of the Romanian Academy of Sciences and founding member of the Romanian societies for Biology, Anatomy, Neurology and Endocrinology. Not surprisingly, in Communist Romania, Parhon’s research programs had the force of law, both scientific and political. And life-extension and rejuvenation were the definitive elements in his scientific program. For example, he demanded that the biology of aging and longevity be made a compulsory subject in schools. In 1951, Parhon founded the world’s second dedicated Institute of Gerontology and Geriatrics in Bucharest (or the world’s first, as believed by some gerontologists who are unaware of Kotsovsky’s existence[cdlxxv]). The institute exists to the present.[cdlxxvi] The next in line were Switzerland’s Institute for Experimental Gerontology, founded in 1956 by Fritz Verzár (1886-1979), under the inspiration of Parhon’s success, and the Institute of Gerontology of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences, established in 1958 in Kiev, after studying the experience of the Romanian comrades.[cdlxxvii] The research at Parhon’s institute was explicitly aimed at finding rejuvenating substances. Parhon’s reaction to the failure of earlier rejuvenation methods was straightforward: Search for new ones!
Parhon recognized the tremendous importance of preventive hygiene for life extension. In The Biology of Lifespan (1955, Biologia Virstelor), he asserted that “the first prerequisite for the prophylaxis of premature old age is the creation of favorable living conditions. Social and economic conditions must be created in which, on the one hand, premature aging cannot take place as result of general exhaustion and, on the other, the aging organism can be stimulated as a whole.”[cdlxxviii] And yet, he believed that “true” artificial rejuvenation is possible and has been observed. In Parhon’s view, in order to accomplish radical rejuvenation and life-extension, pharmacological interventions will be indispensable. The rejuvenative substances he experimented with included vitamin E, folliculin and thyroid hormones, even alkaline soda baths (of the kind proposed by the Soviet biologist, one of Stalin’s favorites, Olga Lepeshinskaya, 1871-1963).
Yet, perhaps the major product of Parhon’s research, and the most famous outcome of the Institute’s activity, was “Gerovital” or low concentration Novocain solutions (C13H20N2O2). Most researchers credit Dr. Ana Aslan (1897-1988), Parhon’s protégée and Director of the Bucharest Institute of Gerontology and Geriatrics since 1952, for the discovery of the rejuvenative properties of Novocain (around 1949).[cdlxxix] Kotsovsky, however, directly credited Parhon for this discovery, made when trying Novocain in animals as a potential therapy for arthritis, and Aslan was only credited for its development. Undoubtedly, no test-tube would have been moved in the Institute without Parhon’s blessing. Undoubtedly also, Aslan was chiefly responsible for perfecting the technique and even more for its popularization world-wide.
The major effects of Procaine (a.k.a. Gerovital / Aslavital / Vitamin H3 / low-concentration Novocain), were claimed to be rejuvenating trophic and stimulatory effects. Clinical results of injections into veins or muscles included tightening of the skin, growing and renewed pigmentation of the hair, improving memory, sight and hearing, regaining the power of movement, increasing blood circulation, etc. Clinical observations were accompanied by a massive battery of physiological and biochemical tests, including changes in muscle and nerve tone, blood vessels elasticity and dilation, ATP production, protein and lipoprotein balance, etc.[cdlxxx] The effects of Novocain were chiefly attributed not to its anesthetic (nerve-numbing) properties, but to a vitamin-like “eutrophic” (nourishment-improving) action, presumably via a transformation of Novocain into para-aminobenzoic acid and folic acid. Hence the substance was branded “Vitamin H3.” Many of these studies were published by Aslan in the rather obscure East-German journal Die Therapiewoche (Therapy Weekly) in the 1950s.[cdlxxxi] As with earlier rejuvenation methods, observations showed that “Gerovital” produces notable “reinvigorating effects.” But so does Cocaine, Novocain’s derivative. “Gerovital” (Novocain) was not found to be addictive or fatal. Yet, as with earlier rejuvenating methods, no substantial life-prolonging properties were evidenced either.[cdlxxxii]
Nonetheless, following the initial reports of “rejuvenating” phenomena, Gerovital turned into a world sensation. It became world-famous around 1957, after Aslan’s presentation that year at the Fourth World Congress of Gerontology in Merano, Italy. Publicity became overwhelming after the treatment of Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Francis Fisher (1887–1972) at Aslan’s institute in 1958. Other dignitaries treated by Aslan’s method in the late 1950s through the 1960s included the West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967), president of the French Republic Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970), president of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980), and many more. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) underwent the treatment in 1959. The General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party and the leader of the Socialist Republic of Romania (from 1965 to 1989) Nicolae Ceauşescu (1918-1989) too was one of Aslan’s enthusiastic patients and a great patron of the Bucharest Institute of Gerontology. (Ceauşescu was generally quite a “pro-life” ideologue, banning abortions in 1966.) With the continuous support from the Communist Party, Aslan’s institute massively capitalized on the treatment. The socialist institution became a successful capitalist unit, providing paid treatments at the institute itself, in-place manufacturing and distribution or licensing (in the West, licenses were given in West Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Mexico). In the 1960s, Gerovital was available in all countries of the Eastern bloc, but was in deficit. In the West it was much easier to come by (and it is still widely available today, mainly in Europe). Aslan received a great many honors, including the Romanian title of a Hero of Socialist Labor (1971) and the Italian "Dama di Collare Del Santo Graal" (Lady of the Collar of the Holy Grail, 1978).[cdlxxxiii] Thus, under the Communist blessing, Romania became a new stronghold of “Rejuvenation.”
11. Neutrals – Switzerland. Paul Niehans (1882-1971)
Yet another stronghold of rejuvenation was in Switzerland, where rejuvenators stood fast throughout the 1930s-1940s, through the general debunking of endocrine rejuvenation methods and through the disruptive period of world confrontation. Switzerland, historically, was one of the oldest and most fertile grounds for rejuvenation research in Europe. This research tradition was there long sanctified by the elder of Swiss rejuvenators and the founder of medical chemistry, Paracelsus (Phillip von Hohenheim, 1493-1541) and by one of the founders of physiology, the author of the concept of “irritability” Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777). Haller, surely, inherited his interest in longevity and rejuvenation from his teacher, one of the most renowned physicians and physiologists of his time, the Dutch Professor Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738). Both Paracelsus and Haller affirmed the theoretical possibility of a radical prolongation of life (well extending into centuries) and produced quite a few rejuvenating “elixirs” for the purpose.[cdlxxxiv] Thus, the tradition of life-extensionism and rejuvenation research was long legitimized in Switzerland by their formidable authority.
Besides the long entrenched tradition, there might have been additional social causes for the persistence of radical life-extensionism and rejuvenation research in Switzerland in the 1930s-1940s. During the period of conflict, neutral Switzerland had the greatest political stability and economic prosperity in Europe.[cdlxxxv] Consequently, Switzerland was spared the disruptions that plagued rejuvenation and longevity research in the belligerent countries (in Germany and the USSR, for example, publications on rejuvenation and longevity were reduced to a minimum in 1943-1944[cdlxxxvi]). Another possible reason may have been that, in Switzerland in that period, the life-expectancy at birth was among the highest in Europe and in the world.[cdlxxxvii] The relatively high number of the long-lived among Alpine mountaineers was traditionally a matter of national pride.[cdlxxxviii] The old saying “the more one has, the more one wants” might have been the motto.[cdlxxxix] Whatever the explanation might be, from the 1930s through the 1950s, Switzerland became a safe haven for many rejuvenators. For Serge Voronoff (1866-1951) Switzerland became the last stop in his wanderings during and after the war (through Portugal, United States, France and Italy); he died in Lausanne. In Switzerland, Eugen Steinach (1861-1944) found refuge from Nazi persecutions. From there he fired the last volley in defense of his endocrine rejuvenation methods: Sex and Life; Forty Years of Biological and Medical Experiments (1940). Steinach's work concluded with this statement: “Here is the foundation upon which the proud structure of present-day hormone research is reared. ... On the tree of knowledge, as with every other tree, fruit can ripen only if the roots are strong and well secured.”[cdxc]
Several Swiss researchers cultivated the tree of rejuvenation planted by Steinach. In 1916, Siegfried Stocker of Lucerne conducted sex gland transplantations in humans.[cdxci] And in 1922, Karl Kolb of Zurich conducted such transplantations in goats.[cdxcii] (To recall, the first sex gland transplantations in animals were performed by Steinach in 1911.) But perhaps the most prominent Swiss rejuvenator was Paul Niehans of Vevey (1882-1971). He became interested in endocrine rejuvenation methods in the late 1920s, and in the early 1930s developed his own method: the Cell Therapy (Zellular-therapie).[cdxciii] In 20 Jahre Zellular-Therapie (Twenty Years of Cell Therapy, 1952), Niehans described the gist of his method:[cdxciv]
The new healing method, that today may still seem revolutionary, employs specific embryonic or youthful fresh cells, cell cultures, conserved cells or cell-rich liquids, to treat the sufferings against which contemporary medical art had been powerless.
For diagnosis, Niehans extensively used the Abderhalden reaction, determining the levels of Abderhalden’s “protective enzymes” and protein degradation in particular organs and tissues (to recall, the Swiss-born Abderhalden, 1877-1950, too found refuge in his homeland after the war). After the organ diagnosis, Niehans injected the patients with cell suspensions from corresponding organs. Thus, cell therapy was applied to regenerate the nervous system: the brain cortex, the middle brain, thalamus and hypothalamus, etc. (Niehans noted that contrary to the dominant conviction that nerve cells do not regenerate, his practice showed that they can indeed undergo some degree of regeneration). Success was reported in the treatment of blindness, deafness and idiocy. Dysfunctions of endocrine glands – pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, thymus, pancreas, adrenals, and sex glands – were treated by cells from corresponding organs. The same was done for the heart, liver, intestinal mucosa, the reticulo-endothelial system, bones (using injections of osteoblasts), bone-marrow, kidneys, etc. Injections of placental tissue and “cell-rich” blood, particularly enriched fractions of leukocytes, were among the favorite treatments.
Niehans believed that cell therapy can be applied against virtually all chronic organic diseases, including cancer. But its major purpose was rejuvenation proper, the “mitigation of the deterioration of aging.” According to Niehans, “premature senescence is a pathological problem, which can be in a large degree solved through the revitalization of damaged organs, particularly the sex glands.” In Niehans’s view, “youthful cells serve the tired, the ill, the old, and the weak. Here science bestows on us a new capital of life. Many valuable people thus avoid a disabled existence and enjoy life afresh, overcoming their depressions.”[cdxcv] It is of course necessary to note that the efficacy of Niehans’s treatments was far from being generally proven or acknowledged, to say the least. Even Niehans’s own descriptions of the results (such as “suffering disappears”) were rather vague.
As Niehans’s reports make us understand, the cells for treatments were taken from domestic animals, either animal fetuses (whose cells were believed to be the least rejectable or the least toxic), or young animals (in case particular organs were not sufficiently developed in the fetus). Sheep were the donors of choice (as they were believed to be the most resistant to diseases). Yet, Niehans let it slip that in some cases human embryonic tissues, most likely from abortions, were used. Thus “cell cultures of the pancreas of a human fetus” were injected to Herr F.A., born 1894, suffering from Diabetes Mellitus.[cdxcvi] (For Niehans, the use of such tissues did not seem to raise any ethical concerns whatsoever.) Thus, Niehans may be well considered as one of the primary instigators of “Regenerative Cell Therapy” in general and “Embryonic Stem Cell Therapy” in particular. Today these therapies are among the most hotly debated fields of biomedical research, both in terms of their potential efficacy and ethical implications. Some 70-80 years after Niehans’s first attempts, the promise of these therapies is yet to be validated, much “further research” being needed.[cdxcvii]
Yet another ramification from Niehans’s cell therapy may have been “Gene Therapy.” Niehans preferred to use fresh cells for his treatments, as he believed that these were the most biologically potent and needed to be administered almost immediately after the animal was slaughtered. Niehans’s clinic in Vevey was the chief provider of fresh cell therapy (and it still operates today[cdxcviii]). However, as the immediate delivery of fresh cells from slaughter houses to hospitals was somewhat cumbersome and expensive, factories were set up to prepare lyophilized cells (dried by freezing in vacuum) for shipment all over the world in ampoules. Niehans’s factory “Siccacell,” set up in Heidelberg, Germany, became the world’s largest producer of such preserved cells (which are still available today) and these were widely applied by Niehans’s followers in Mexico, Argentina, France, Belgium, Italy, Holland, West Germany and Britain (in the US their use was banned in 1984). Some of Niehans’s disciples in the 1960s, such as the German Wolfgang Goetze-Claren and the British Peter Stephan, in place of using entire cells, sought to extract their active, rejuvenating ingredients. DNA and RNA seemed to be likely candidates, so they were extracted and administered, giving rise to “Gene/Genetic Therapy.”[cdxcix] Of course, those methods of “Gene Therapy” were rather crude, using direct ingestion or injection of DNA/RNA extracts, without employing any sophisticated viral transmission vectors that are tried today. Yet, the title of “Gene Therapy” did they carry. As with “regenerative cell therapy,” “gene therapy” is still in research and development.[d]
The ideological underpinnings of Niehans’s work may be characterized as a mixture of aristocratism and capitalism. In The Youth Doctors (1968),[di] the American journalist and health care activist Patrick Michael McGrady[dii] related that Niehans was a scion to the Hohenzollern’s royal family, a grandson of the German Emperor and King of Prussia Friedrich III (1831-1888) and Countess (Elisabeth?) von Fürstenberg (the latter allegedly settled in Switzerland around 1853, perhaps to cover up for the birth of her and Friedrich’s illegitimate daughter Anna, Paul Niehans’s mother).[diii] During WWI, Niehans served as an honorary aid-de-camp to his uncle, German Emperor and King of Prussia Wilhelm II (1859-1941). As McGrady testified, both Niehans’s manners and the luxurious trappings of his mansion in Vevey were imbued with the spirit of aristocratism (flaunting, among other regalia of noble birth, his grandfather’s medallion at his desk). Aristocratism was also displayed in the treatment of Niehans’s clients. When presented with a choice of patients, Niehans preferred those higher in standing. Celebrities were red-carpeted, not only because they were generally more able to pay (the treatment courses were in the range of thousands of dollars), but perhaps also because Niehans craved prestige and the association with celebrities would have great image-boosting and advertising power. Perhaps it were, first and foremost, the celebrities to whom Niehans referred as “valuable people” who should “avoid a disabled existence” thanks to his therapy.
Niehans indeed could boast an illustrious list of beneficiaries. Among the subjects treated by Niehans’s cell therapy in the 1950s-1960s, McGrady attested, there were heads of state: the Saudi Arabian king Ibn Saud, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer. De Gaulle and Adenauer apparently received both Aslan’s gerovital and Niehans’s cell therapy. Several world-famous intellectuals and artists were enthusiastic recipients of the therapy, such as the writers Somerset Maugham and Thomas Mann, the actors Gloria Swanson and Charlie Chaplin, the French fashion designer Christian Dior. The American financial mogul Bernard Baruch (1870-1965) too was among the beneficiaries.
But perhaps the most glory came from the treatment of Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Marìa Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, 1876-1958), which propelled Niehans to world fame. Pius XII was first administered cell therapy by Niehans in 1954, and since then resorted to Niehans’s services on several occasions. Photographs of Pius XII together with Niehans graced Niehans’s dossiers (and they can still be seen in Clinique Paul Niehans’ advertisements[div]). In 1955, Pius XII made Niehans a fellow of the Pontifical Academy, in place of the late Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), the discoverer of penicillin. The Pope was also reported by McGrady to try other rejuvenating therapies, such as royal jelly (or “bee’s milk”) and dishes from chick embryos.[dv]
The treatment of the Pope seems to be significant on several levels. First, this seems to be a striking example of how public relations can be leveraged in passing judgment in matters of science. Of course, the likely event that the Pope (or any other celebrity) took an aspirin in their days, would not bear any witness as to the drug’s efficacy. However, the fact that the Pope received the relatively less known and less tried “rejuvenating therapy,” was a great reassurance, worth any number of clinical trials, both for the public who demanded an immediate access to the therapy and to medical practitioners who were too happy to oblige. The Pope’s implicit blessing propelled the specific therapy from relative obscurity to a spot-light of investigation and application. The Pope’s treatment perhaps tells even more about the relation of religion and science. It has been a common conviction among atheist life-extensionists that religion generally, and particular branches of Christianity, are somehow intrinsically averse to far-reaching biomedical interventions or even to the idea of life-extension, placing a greater emphasis on faith-healing and life in the world to come.[dvi] But the Pope’s case demonstrates that when it comes to prolonging one’s life by yet another day and for as long as possible, by whatever means necessary, the religious can be quite zealous. And the same attitude can be often found in the long history of the Pontifical office.[dvii] (Niehans himself, in his youth, went to a Protestant divinity school and received a doctorate in theology; though in his later life he was not particularly observant.)
The well-known attitude of the Catholic Church to abortions, or the use of human embryonic tissues for medical purposes, is complete rejection.[dviii] However, it is difficult to believe that the Pope, or his retinue, or electors of the Pontifical Academy, did not know about Niehans’s use of human fetal tissues for therapy. This did not seem to hinder employing Niehans as the Pope’s treating physician. The type of cells the Pope was administered remains a secret. The Pope’s treatment demonstrates, above all, that life-extensionism can be adjusted to religion, when the interested parties have religious backgrounds.
12. Respectable gerontology – Fritz Verzár (1886-1979)
The efficacy of Niehans’s cell therapy was widely disputed. One of its major detractors was the Swiss (Hungarian born) professor of physiology, Fritz Verzár, himself a powerful figure in the life-extension movement.[dix] In I952, at the age of 66, he switched from bacteriology and nutritional medicine to gerontology (apparently under the persuasion of the Russian/British gerontologist and life-extension advocate Vladimir Korenchevsky). Verzár remained active and influential in the field of aging and longevity research to the end of his days at the age of 93. In 1956, he founded the Institute for Experimental Gerontology in Basel, one of the world’s first.[dx] In 1957, Verzár founded the specialized journal Gerontologie, also one of the world’s earliest. Verzár was chiefly responsible for developing the cross-linking theory of aging. The formation of cross-links was initially observed between molecules of elastin and collagen. This explained the loss of tissue elasticity, particularly the hardening of blood vessels, and suggested the breaking of cross-links as a potential method to combat aging.[dxi] However, as Verzár’s background was in nutritional medicine, one of his main research emphases was on the use of proper nutrition for extending longevity, including the use of vitamins and the study of nutritional habits of long-lived Swiss mountaineers (as well as climatic factors for their longevity, such as oxygen consumption at high altitudes). Verzár’s Institute for Experimental Gerontology became a training ground for many aspiring longevity researchers and advocates.
One of Verzár’s pupils, the Belgian physician Herman Le Compte (1929-2008) took the idea of proper nutrition to an extreme. According to Le Compte, aging generally derives from nutritional deficiencies. Therefore, by supplying or balancing these deficiencies, people may be able to live virtually indefinitely: “The causal treatment of aging could thus be brought about in two ways: firstly by restoring the deficiencies, secondly by removing the degradation substances.” Hence, “Youth is a possession you can keep if you choose.”[dxii] Verzár, however, made no such far-reaching assumptions. If anything, he represented the ‘respectable face’ of gerontology: as the founder of an academic institution and a journal, the key note speaker at scientific conferences, the venerable mentor of many scientists. Appropriately, he was at war with Niehans, with rejuvenators generally, with anyone who would sell us untested snake oil.[dxiii]
Verzár represented the approach to life-extension that would first conduct extensive research, and the more extensive the better, in order to understand everything there is to be understood about the aging process, and then maybe, just maybe, suggest strategies for intervention. In the meantime, to increase our longevity (if only slightly), the proponents of this approach would recommend following simple rules of hygiene and maintaining an active and optimistic attitude (the suggestions that do not seem to require a very extensive basic research). Indeed, Verzár’s nonagenarian life furnished to many a telling example of how activity and optimism can prolong one’s life, regardless of Verzár’s research findings. Thus, Le Compte emphasized: “What a mercy for [Verzár] that Gerontology exists, i.e. that he was able to begin a second career at 70 after his retirement. For this work keeps him young!”[dxiv] The president of the French Gerontological Society and Verzár’s biographer, Francois Bourlière, made the point even more explicit: “When some participants were gravely discussing the meaning of science, Verzár unexpectedly remarked ‘For me, science means mainly fun for the scientist!’ I have the feeling that this never ending delight in unveiling the unknown is the very essence of his Fountain of Youth.”[dxv]
The distinction between reductionist “rejuvenators” (who would devise a specific tweaking for the human engine and give us a rejuvenating pill here and now), holistic “hygienists” (who would recommend working, sleeping and eating in moderation and being happy as prescribed by Hippocrates, looking forward to reaching a “natural” life-span that we do not normally reach) and “basic researchers” (like rejuvenators valorizing reductionism, but who would first conduct extensive study and build a theory and then, perhaps, arrive at conclusive recommendations) seems to have been persistent in the history of the life-extension movement. However, the distinction has been often blurred, and combinations of approaches have not been uncommon. Thus, both Niehans and Verzár were great enthusiasts of hygiene and physical activity, both conducted extensive laboratory tests, and both prescribed some forms of life-extending products. The distinctions may only be observable in different degrees of emphasis.
13. Chapter conclusion. Between “artificial” and “natural” life-extension
The responses to the failure of endocrine rejuvenation of the 1920s were manifest in different shifts of emphasis toward different potential life-extending means. Moreover, in different countries, the accents appeared to differ. In France and Germany, “holistic” and “natural” macrobiotic hygiene was emphasized. In Romania and Switzerland, attempts at artificial rejuvenation (with new methods) and basic research were conspicuous. As will be shown in the next chapters, in the Soviet Union and the United States, the approach was similar to Romania and Switzerland. The importance of physical and mental hygiene was recognized in the SU and US. But there was a great readiness to try new rejuvenative pills and injections, and voices proliferated demanding ever greater basic research in order first to find such remedies and then to test them.
The ideological justifications for longevity research in the Soviet Union and the United States will provide further examples (perhaps even more salient than France and Germany) of how ideology shapes research programs. It will be again shown that longevity researchers and life-extension proponents acted as true advocates for the perpetuation of the social and ideological order of which they considered themselves to be a part. In attempting to relate the “internal” evolution of longevity research with the “external” social determinants, it may not be an accident that the strengthening of “holistic” and “natural” approaches in France and Germany were concomitant with the strengthening of traditionalist and nationalist attitudes in these countries. Perhaps a simultaneous attempt was made to revert to some sense of “native,” “inborn” and “primordial” community and body, unencumbered by any “foreign” and “modish” intrusions. Presently, some western proponents of “natural” or “holistic” approaches would not wish to have anything to do with “traditionalism” and especially with “nationalism,” yet in the early period under consideration, in France and Germany, these notions were strongly correlated. In the Soviet Union and the United States, on the other hand, socialist aspirations and capitalist concerns appear to be respectively the chief determinants for pursuing diverse basic and applied life-extension research programs.
The USSR: The perpetuation of Socialism and triumph of Materialism
1. Chapter summary
In this chapter, the works and ideas of several prominent Russian life-extensionists will be presented, with a special emphasis on the period of Stalin’s rule. First, with regard to the social milieu of science, Russia, I will argue, constitutes perhaps the most salient example of a link between the ruling political, ideological and social scheme and longevity research and advocacy. The role of life-extensionists as advocates for the perpetuation of the existing ideological and social order will be shown. Secondly, with regard to specific scientific projects initiated by Soviet life-extensionists, their emphasis on reductionist, materialistic methodology will be demonstrated. The materialistic approach will be shown to be one of several central elements compatible with the prevailing communist ideology. The Russian reaction to the failures of the reductionist rejuvenation attempts of the 1920s was characteristic: rather than perceiving these failures as a stimulus to change the course of scientific work (such as making a transition to a more holistic approach which was pronounced among life-extensionists in France and Germany in the 1930s), Russian life-extensionists conceived of the failures as building blocks and signposts for a continued pursuit on the same path. This attitude may be considered as yet another element of the influence of the dominant ideology on science, a manifestation of the frequent Soviet disregard of current hardships in view of grander future prospects.
2. The Russian tradition. Life-extensionism integrated into the Russian Monarchy
Traditionally, Russian life-extensionists had very strong ties with the ruling regimes. Before the Socialist Revolution of 1917, the connections of longevity researchers to the monarchy were conspicuous. Thus, Empress Anna Ioanovna[dxvi] employed the German-Latvian proponent of life-extension, Johann Bernhard Fischer (1685-1772), as her personal and court physician and appointed him the “Archiatrus” (head of the ministry of medicine) of the Russian Empire. Fischer’s investigations on aging and longevity culminated during the rule of Empress Elisaveta Petrovna,[dxvii] with the publication of his book On Old Age, its Degrees and Diseases (De Senior Eiusque Gradibus et Morbis, 1754, republished in 1760). In Nazi Germany, the “German-Baltic” Fischer was honored as a forefather of German life-extensionism. Thus the German medical historian Johannes Steudel claimed in 1942 that to Fischer “belongs the merit of opposing the [earlier] therapeutic skepticism” regarding the combat of aging. Steudel emphasized Fischer’s priority in describing the morphology and pathology of aging (before the works of the Italian pathologo-anatomist Giovanni Battista Morgagni, 1682-1771) as well as in studying the physiology of aging (before the Swiss physiologist Albrecht von Haller, 1708-1777). Fischer was also credited by Steudel for specifying hygienic rules for healthy aging (before Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland, 1762-1836).[dxviii] Soviet Russian life-extensionists, however, claimed Fischer as one of their own (Sergey Tomilin, 1939),[dxix] without any reference to Fischer’s being a German or a court physician, and only mentioning his title as the head of the Russian medical service. Fischer died during the rule of the Russian Empress Catherine II the Great.[dxx] During Catherine’s rule, in 1778, the Russian court entertained the Italian “master of rejuvenation” Count Alessandro di Cagliostro (Giuseppe Balsamo, 1743-1795). Catherine’s successors, the royal couple Paul I and Maria Feodorovna[dxxi] too had a strong relation to life-extensionism. After the assassination of Paul I in 1801, Maria Feodorovna had her husband’s body preserved and built a mausoleum in his memory, presumably with some hopes for future resurrection.[dxxii] Under Alexander II and Alexander III,[dxxiii] the Russian longevity researcher and pioneer of geriatrics, Sergey Petrovich Botkin (1832-1889) served as a court physician and occupied high posts in the political establishment (in the Parliament and in the Ministry of Internal Affairs).
During the subsequent rule of Nikolay I,[dxxiv] a world authority on rejuvenative organotherapy was Prof. Alexander Vasilievich Poehl of St. Petersburg (1850-1908), whose “rejuvenating” preparation “spermin” (an extract from animal testicles) was supplied to the Royal Court. Another renowned rejuvenator, Ivan Romanovich Tarkhanov (Georgian prince Tarkhan-Mouravov, 1846-1908), who believed that it should be a “shame to die before the age of one hundred,” belonged to the highest aristocracy. Tarkhanov and Poehl co-authored a definitive monograph on Organotherapy in 1905.[dxxv] Another prominent Russian life-extensionist during the rule of Nikolay I was Porfiriy Ivanovich Bakhmetiev (1860-1913) who was apparently the first to achieve suspended animation (anabiosis) in animals (bats) by freezing (he conducted these experiments since 1897, when working at the University of Sophia, in the Russia-allied Bulgarian Kingdom).[dxxvi] A great adept of artificial “resurrection” (ozhivlenie) was Alexey Alexandrovich Kuliabko (1866-1930) who was the first to revive the human heart after death (around 1902). In 1913, Fyodor Andreevich Andreev (1879-1952) revived a dog using the first life-support system.[dxxvii] Though Bakhmetiev, Kuliabko and Andreev did not seem to have any ostensible ties to high aristocracy, they were no revolutionaries either. Neither were the physiologists Ivan Mikhailovich Sechenov (1829-1905) and Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1949-1936), whose views were strongly compatible with life-extensionism.[dxxviii] To recall, Metchnikoff, both in Russia and in emigration in France, denoted himself as a “Russian nobleman.”[dxxix]
One of Russia’s greatest life-extensionist philosophers during the rule of Nikolay I was Nikolay Fedorovich Fedorov (1829-1903), the Russian Pravoslav religious philosopher and founder of “Russian Cosmism,” respected by Lev Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, among many great Russian thinkers.[dxxx] According to Fedorov’s Philosophy of the Common Task (most of his works appeared posthumously in 1906 and 1913 under this title), the Christian doctrine of salvation dictated a practical program toward individual and social immortality, even resurrection of past generations, which, he believed, would be achieved by collective, scientific effort.[dxxxi] In setting these goals, Fedorov presented himself as a devoted Russian monarchist. In Fedorov's works, nationalist and totalitarian undertones are unmistakable:[dxxxii]
Russia and the Russian people can (and must) call all peoples of the world to an alliance against this common enemy [death]. Absolute monarchy will play the highest role in this struggle, and Pravoslav Christianity, that will sanctify this union, will become the common religion.
And furthermore, the “common task” of fighting death requires universal conscription, and must be directed by a “Psychocracy” grounded in absolute monarchy:[dxxxiii]
Regulation is not restricted to the physiological aspect of the conscripted, but expands onto the internal, psychic aspect, and the latter becomes the foundation of society (Psychocracy). Psychocracy cannot coexist with judicial forms of government, with aristocratic or democratic republics, not even with constitutional monarchies, but only with absolute, patriarchal monarchy, with a King, standing in place of the Fathers, as a sovereign of the two kinds of regulation, the internal and the external.
Notably, absolute monarchy was presented by Fedorov as a symbol of power for the unification of equals, rather than as the rule of high aristocracy. Nonetheless, Fedorov did build on and advocate the conservation of his native social and ideological institutions: Pravoslav Christianity, universal conscription and absolute monarchy. Not only would the present social institutions remain in the future, but they would remain indefinitely.
3. The emergence of the Soviet state and the creation of a new long-lived man
After the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917, all associations with Christianity and Monarchy were immediately wiped out from the Soviet Russian life-extensionist ideology. Instead, the purported ideological foundations of the emerging socialist state – central planning, creation of a “new man,”[dxxxiv] equality, collectivism and support of the weakest members of the social organism – were heralded as the definitive elements of a new life-affirming social order that was hoped to continue far into the future.[dxxxv] These, for example, were the beliefs of the Marxist politician, economist and physician Alexander Alexandrovich Bogdanov (1873-1928, b. Alexander Malinovsky), the creator of the science of “tectology” – the “universal science of organization” (1913-1928), and a leader of the “Scientific Organization of Labor” movement.[dxxxvi] Since 1918, he was a professor of political economy at Moscow University, a member of the presidium of the Communist Academy, and member of the Central Committee of the Proletcult - the Proletarian Culture movement. Since 1926, Bogdanov was also the founding director of the State Institute for Blood Transfusion in Moscow, apparently the first such dedicated institute in the world, established for the explicit purpose of using blood transfusions for rejuvenation.[dxxxvii]
In The Struggle for Viability (1927), Bogdanov summarized his general views on life-extension, asserting that vitality deteriorates due to an impairment of cells’ “organizational relations” and “internal milieu.” According to him, social imperfections and inequalities largely contribute to bodily dissonance and life-shortening. The “organizational relations,” both social and biological, are adjustable in a new socialist society, their equilibrium can be enforced, whereby “our life should last 120-140 years” at the least.[dxxxviii] In such a society, a “new human type” would emerge that would develop harmoniously and in communion with others, and hence avoid the attrition inherent in capitalist specialization and seclusion.[dxxxix] (Similar ideas on the harmonizing, equilibrating and sustaining power of socialism were expressed by Leon Trotsky.[dxl])
In the paper “On Physiological Collectivism” (1922), Bogdanov asserted that by supporting the “weakest elements” of the biological and social system, by sharing resources with them, a prolonged existence of the entire system can be accomplished. Such a support of the “weakest elements” can be “only systematically achieved by transcending the limits of physiological individuality, as foreign as this thought may seem to the individualist worldview of our epoch.” According to Bogdanov, such collectivism “is now only seldom present. But it is present, nonetheless, and it is augmenting with the progress of culture.” The rejuvenative blood transfusion was considered as one of the highest manifestations of collectivism and its revitalizing action (even if blood was transfused from an old to a young person) was explained by the simple gift of sharing resources (1922).[dxli] Notably, Bogdanov expressed similar views before the revolution, while in political exile in Europe.[dxlii] Yet, it was in new Socialist Russia that he was able to profess radical collectivism widely and authoritatively.
In the first years of the socialist state, similar collectivist rationales for rejuvenation and life-extension were posited by one of Russia’s foremost geneticists, president of the “Russian Eugenics Society” and founder of the Moscow Institute of Experimental Biology, Nikolay Konstantinovich Koltsov (1872-1940). Koltsov believed rejuvenation is a “problem of high importance,” though he maintained that for humans, despite the present “positive results,” “caution in the application of a new method … would be necessary” and the problem requires a “detailed and prolonged research.” However, for animal husbandry, Koltsov recommended the use of rejuvenative operations (Steinach’s and Voronoff’s) immediately and on the widest possible scale, in order to prolong the reproductive periods of prized breeders. Koltsov feared the use of rejuvenation and eugenics for class segregation and exploitation, while at the same time recommending them as a potential means to strengthen the socialist society generally and the communist party base particularly (1923, 1924).[dxliii] Despite Koltsov’s advocacy, however, no eugenic laws were ever passed in Russia.
The life-extensionists who would not comply with the dominant communist ideology, were expelled from the country in 1919-1922. This was the fate of Vladimir Georgievich Korenchevsky (1880-1959), a former counterrevolutionary White Army medical officer, who fled to England in 1919 and would later become the founder of institutional gerontological research in Great Britain. Abram Solomonovich Zalmanov (1876-1964), the proponent of rejuvenative and stimulating “capillary therapy” (for example, by turpentine baths) and the personal physician of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov-Lenin (1870-1924), fell out of favor and defected to Paris in 1921.[dxliv] Naum Efimovich Ischlondsky, one of the prominent investigators of rejuvenative operations, found refuge in Berlin in 1922. Another prominent emigrant was Alexander Alexandrovich Maximov (1874-1928) who introduced the concept of “stem cells” as early as 1909, while working on blood formation (hematopoiesis) at St. Petersburg Military Medical Academy.[dxlv] He immigrated to the US in 1922 and his last studies at the University of Chicago (1922-1928) concerned embryonic extracts as stimulants of rejuvenation.
A new stage in the development of the Soviet state occurred after Lenin’s death and Stalin’s coming to power in 1924, and particularly after the suppression of the New Economic Policy in 1928 (NEP, enacted between 1921-1928, which involved some economic liberalization and encouragement of business initiative). With the enactment of the first “Five Year Plan” in October 1928, the era of “collectivization” of agriculture and general “industrialization” began, with the strengthening of the authoritarian government and Stalin’s personality cult. Since that time, the glorification of the socialist state became the all-pervasive motif in Soviet life-extensionist ideology, which continued in various forms well until the end of the socialist system.
In the “industrializing” and “collectivizing” Soviet Union, the support of scientific progress and the egalitarian care for the well being of each member of the socialist collective, were parts of the professed ideology. However, despite the widely announced support for science, the fear of technological advancement was widely spread in Stalin’s times, during the massively supported persecutions of educated professionals, when an engineer was often seen as a saboteur, a geneticist a polluter of nature, a cyberneticist a madman and enemy of humanity, and a doctor a poisoner.[dxlvi] Despite the rhetoric of personal care, similarly to Nazi Germany, the rhetoric of individual sacrifice for the state was not uncommon.[dxlvii] Nevertheless, extensive social and biological experimentations were under way, in line with the official “where there is a wish, there is a way” ideology, comprising the wish and the way toward a radical extension of longevity. Atheism and the absence of belief in an after-life contributed to the popularity of life-extensionism, as a part of a new, ‘this-worldly’ progressivist eschatology, forming a new ‘secular religion.’
On the popular level, various hygienic, physiotherapeutic, exercise and recreational techniques became widely practiced for life-extension. The adoption of such techniques and the universal, free provision of medical services, as well as the construction and deployment of prophylactic and recreational facilities, were propagandized as signs of the growing prosperity of the Soviet people. The fact that, in the first decades of the Soviet state, the general life-expectancy increased dramatically was taken as a proof positive of the advantages of the socialist system.[dxlviii]
The importance of hygienic measures for life-extension was emphasized, for example, in the works of Ivan Mikhailovich Sarkizov-Serazini (1887-1964), one of the founders of Soviet therapeutic physical culture and sports medicine, serving from 1944 to 1964 as a professor at the Moscow Institute of Physical Culture. As will be discussed shortly after, according to Sarkizov-Serazini, life-extensionist hygiene could truly flourish only under socialism, that is to say, in a society that cares for each and every one of its citizens and where life-shortening inequalities are rectified.[dxlix] Longevity through “social hygiene” was also propagandized by Academician Zakhary Grigorievich Frenkel (1869-1970), one of the founders and leaders of the Leningrad Sanitary Hygienic Medical Institute, and others.[dl] Yet, the importance of “following nature” or hygienic “natural regimens” was not nearly as strongly emphasized as in contemporary Germany. The new Soviet man was no slave to nature, but a master of nature, bending and shaping nature to his will. And Soviet science was called on to provide the tools for such mastery, including the tools to manipulate and retard the aging process. Nevertheless, some ‘naturalism in disguise’ often crept in when the Soviet gerontologists spoke of combating “premature aging” and achieving “physiological aging.” The state promotion of gerontological and general life-extension research was then seen as yet another hallmark of the socialist society, a society willing to invest in far-reaching studies that may bear fruit in the very long term, without any immediate promises of profit.
The attitude of the socialist state under Stalin’s regime to science was quite complex and selective. Certain lines of research were favored (especially in physics and engineering), while others were forcefully suppressed (formal genetics, cybernetics).[dli] Longevity research, however, was generally favored by the authorities. Stalin’s personal support was not negligible. Iosif Vissarionovich Jughashvili-Stalin (1878-1953) seems to have been quite fond of the idea of extreme longevity. In his letters to his mother, he wished her a life span ranging between a thousand and ten thousand years: “May you have a thousand years of life, vigor and health” (June 25, 1925), “Live ten thousand years.” (October 9, 1936), “Our breed is, evidently, a strong breed. Wishing you health, live many years, my mother” (March 10, 1937).[dlii] (Stalin’s mother, Ekaterina Georgievna Jughashvili, died in June 1937 at the age of 77.) Further attesting to Stalin’s interest in life-extension, the dissident Russian gerontologist Zhores Medvedev (in exile in the UK since 1974) related:[dliii]
In December 1936, [Ivan] Valedinsky [Stalin’s personal physician] was summoned to the dacha at Kuntsevo where Stalin lay ill with tonsillitis and a high temperature. The patient was also examined by Professor Vladimir Vinogradov, a cardiologist, and by Professor Boris Preobrazhensky, a specialist in throat infections. Stalin greeted Valedinsky as an old friend and asked him about the work of the recently established All-Union Institute of Experimental Medicine. In Stalin’s view, the scientists of the Institute ‘spend a lot of time on theory but come up with very little in practice and are not working on the problem of life-extension.’ Soon after this remark, which of course was relayed to those in charge of the Institute, life-extension became a central subject of Soviet medical research.
Throughout Stalin’s rule (1924-1953), cases of fabulous longevity were celebrated, especially those from the Caucasus area, Stalin’s birthplace.[dliv] In the autumn of 1937, the Kiev Institute of Clinical Physiology, under the direction of the most influential Soviet life-extensionist – Academician Alexander Bogomolets, dispatched an expedition, led by Prof. Ivan Basilevich, to Abkhazia (Georgia), to study persons of very advanced age and super-centenarians, assumed to be particularly abundant in that area, and to discover the secrets of their longevity.[dlv] This was apparently the first such concerted expedition in the world. One may conjecture whether the death of Stalin’s mother had anything to do with his increasing support for longevity research after 1937 (or whether the psychological trauma sustained was somehow connected to the massive repressions of 1938). In any case, Stalin’s patronage of Soviet longevity science was paramount, and panegyrics to Stalin were all pervasive in the Soviet life-extensionist literature of the period. The acclaim of Stalin formed an essential part of the general acclaim of the socialist system. References to Stalin were dropped after his death and the demolition of his “personality cult,” but the praises of the socialist government remained well until its end.
5. “Russia is the birthplace of elephants” – Ivan Mikhailovich Sarkizov-Serazini (1887-1964)
An old Soviet joke told that in honor of the “International Year of the Elephant” the USSR Academy of Sciences produced four volumes: “Elephants and classics of Marxism-Leninism,” “Elephants in the light of the decisions of the latest communist party conference,” “Elephants and increasing socialist productivity” and finally “The USSR as the birthplace of elephants.” Replace “elephants” with “longevity,” and one will have a summary of the ideological underpinnings of life-extension research and advocacy in the USSR, since the foundation of the Soviet Union until its collapse.
A striking example of the professed support of the socialist system by Soviet life-extensionists can be found in the works of the sports physician Prof. Ivan Mikhailovich Sarkizov-Serazini.[dlvi] In Czarist Russia, he struggled for bare survival: a son of the poor, he worked as a post-man, sailor, fisher, apothecary apprentice. For the involvement in the revolutionary newspaper, The Crimean Riviera, he was exiled from his native Yalta, Crimea Ukraine, to Ekaterinodar at the Northern Caucasus. As Sarkizov-Serazini recalled, “the years 1910-1913 were the years of wanderings in the struggle for a piece of bread, across cities in the south of Russia.”[dlvii] The revolution made him a respectable man. In 1917, he was able to receive a high school diploma (at the age of 30), and finished medical school by 1922. In 1923 he became the scientific secretary of the High Council for Physical Culture, and felt sufficiently confident to issue an appeal in the journal Fizicheskaya Kultura (Physical Culture) “to all scientific workers,” calling all scientists and physicians in the Soviet Republic to promote physical culture, to “nip in the bud the degeneration of the youth in the Republic” that may result from the neglect of physical culture, and admonishing physicians for not participating in this effort.[dlviii] Subsequently, posts and honors of various kinds were lavished on Sarkizov-Serazini. From 1923 until his death in 1964, he was a leading figure in the Institute of Physical Culture in Moscow, which he helped to establish and where, from 1944 to 1964, he served as the dean of the faculty of therapeutic physical culture. He received two Orders of Lenin, the title of a “Distinguished Worker of Science,” and various other medals and titles. His acceptance by the Soviet establishment was wide and firm. A list of his friends in the Soviet political, intellectual, scientific and artistic elite would be extensive and illustrious indeed.[dlix] He also became fabulously rich by Soviet standards, able to amass an immense collection of paintings by renowned Russian artists (hundreds of paintings, some purchased, some given as personal gifts) and a 10,000 volume library, both of which he donated to the state later in life.
In the 1930s, Sarkizov-Serazini became a top authority in all the matters of “practical life-extension” or as it was then commonly termed “active longevity,” in therapeutic physical culture, sports massage, sanatorium care, physiotherapy, climate therapy or environmental therapy, and various systems of “tempering” by exercise and exposure to sun, air and water. Largely due to his emphasis on the healing power of sun rays or “light therapy” (the idea that originated with the Danish physician, the Nobel Laureate of 1903, Niels Finsen, 1860-1904), Sarkizov-Serazini received the common appellation of “Sun Doctor.” In 1939, during the Soviet-Finnish war, he devised for the Soviet soldiers an ointment against frost-bites (for which he received a high commendation from Clement Voroshilov, then the USSR minister of defense, who will later play a decisive role in the institutionalization of Soviet longevity research). During WWII, massage and exercise techniques developed by Sarkizov-Serazini were widely used in the physiotherapy of wounded Soviet soldiers. Sarkizov-Serazini became a cultural icon, a celebrity, and often a butt of friendly satire. Thus, the foremost Soviet caricaturists Mikhail Kuprianov, Porfiry Krylov and Nikolay Sokolov (collectively nicknamed the “Kukrinix”), who were all personal friends of Sarkizov-Serazini, depicted him in 1939 as a bureaucrat buried in medical tomes, with a crowd of petty-bourgeois-looking patients rushing toward him exclaiming “Save us! Resurrect us! Heal us! Rejuvenate us!” In the 1939 movie “Chirurgia” (Surgery, based on Anton Chekhov’ stories “Surgery” and “Rural Asclepiuses”), the protagonist (played by Igor Ilyinsky) bears a photographic resemblance to Sarkizov-Serazini, and is great at reassuring his patients and suggesting life-style improvements, but is unable to pull out the correct tooth. (Sarkizov-Serazini was also a friend and physician of Chekhov’s family, Chekhov’s widow, Olga Knipper-Chekhov, and sister, Maria Pavlovna Chekhov.)
Under the socialist system, Sarkizov-Serazini rose to prominence, and was only too eager to repay the socialist system by glorifying it. In the article “Our Motherland – the country of strong, robust people” (1951), his enthusiasm for Soviet Russia abounded. The Soviet state, according to him, both provides the conditions and makes demands for increased longevity:[dlx]
We live in a wonderful epoch. Led by the wise Communist party, the Soviet people, greatly inspired, are involved in vast, creative labor. … The Communist party and the Soviet government daily care for the human being, for his health, for creating the conditions favorable for the prolongation of life of every Soviet citizen. There is no country in the world where these questions receive as much attention, care and material resources, as in our country. … In the Soviet state, where the exploitation of a human being by a human being has been liquidated, where broad social measures have been implemented, radically improving the conditions of labor and of life, where the level of culture has been highly raised, and where the newest achievements of medical science are fully utilized – every person should do everything in order to prolong his life, maintain his productivity, guard against diseases.
Several characteristic arguments were adduced by Sarkizov-Serazini to demonstrate why the socialist system was particularly conducive to longevity. Socialism was supposed to level out life-shortening inequalities (i.e. scarcity and famine of the poor and excesses and obesity of the rich) and to rectify inequalities in health care. It was said to improve people’s material conditions (providing comfortable, but not luxurious accommodation, sufficient but simple nutrition) and to ameliorate the conditions of labor (including the prevention of overwork and work-related accidents assumed to be due to exploitation). Moreover, the socialist state was able to conduct massive, centrally directed hygienic, prophylactic and therapeutic measures, and as a result produce a continuous increase in mean life-expectancy, pointing to a long road ahead. And finally, the socialist state established and supported research programs and “institutes dedicated to solving the problems of longevity and developing means for life-prolongation.”[dlxi] It is beyond the capacity of the present work to evaluate how these arguments/theories/slogans were implemented in real life. But these arguments are absolutely characteristic of Soviet life-extensionism and exemplify the strong adaptation of life-extensionist philosophy to the currently ruling social and ideological regime and the supportive role of this philosophy within the regime.
When reading Sarkizov-Serazini’s articles, such as “Our Motherland is the country of strong, robust people” or “On the long-lived” (written in 1951) and comparing them with life-extensionist works from Nazi Germany (such as Roemheld’s and Venzmer’s), one may wonder whose socialism is more “national” – the Russian or the German. First of all, there is a sense in Sarkizov-Serazini’s writings of a high superiority over foreigners, and at the same time a deep desire to be recognized and respected by these very same people who have the detriment of living outside of Russia. The physical superiority of the Russians, according to Sarkizov-Serazini, has been a long established historical fact: “The historical legends of ancient Slavs, our ancestors, tell of the great power, endurance, productivity, braveness, perseverance and beauty of this people.” The struggle for survival developed in the Russians the “qualities admired and envied by other nations.” “Strong, freedom-loving, hardened, fearless of cold and heat, easily enduring hardships of work and combat, unspoiled by excesses, luxury and depravity – such were our ancestors even according to the descriptions of their enemies.”[dlxii]
Furthermore, according to Sarkizov-Serazini, the contributions of Russian scientists to life-extension research were most weighty and were made far in advance of other countries. Thus, eighteenth century Russian scientists – Mikhail Lomonosov, Alexander Protasov, Semen Zybelin, I. Fischer, etc. – proposed the main macrobiotic rules long before Hufeland, to “the amazement of prudish Germans who then comprised the [Russian] Academy of Sciences” (cf. Roemheld’s and Venzmer’s glorification of the role of German scientists in the pursuit of life-extension). The dictum “Russia is the birthplace of elephants” really comes to mind. Whatever ills befell the Russian people (despite their innate physical superiority) were the fault of the Czarist aristocratic regime which “ignored the demands of the best sons of the Russian people.”[dlxiii]
Under the Soviet rule, it was implied, the innate superiority was only intensified. All the necessary conditions for physical development were provided by the Soviet state, and the social plagues curtailing the longevity in capitalist countries were eliminated. In the article “Aging and causes of premature aging,” Sarkizov-Serazini stated:[dlxiv]
It is unnecessary to cite the numerous statistical data, demonstrating the increase of mortality, incidence of disease, poverty and forced prostitution, hunger or half-hungry existence, the catastrophically increasing number of mental illnesses and suicides in capitalist countries and their dependants, the colonial and half-colonial countries. The expression ‘capitalism is the killer of peoples’ finds its support in the cruel exploitation, in the wars waged by capitalists for profit, in their dreams of world domination.
Sarkizov-Serazini’s own experiences illustrated the (unquoted) statistics: “I have seen these people, sadly standing near the London and Hull docks, having lost any hope to find work… I have seen the extreme poverty of Greece and Turkey, witnessed how the carabineers kicked out poorly dressed workers from the piazza in Venice … I cannot forget the slums of London, Istanbul, Naples, Genoa, Alexandria. … I still hear the songs of beggars on the streets of fancy resorts in Italy…” Thanks to such descriptions, the Soviet citizens (whose vast majority did not have the slightest chance to travel abroad) should have felt truly fortunate to have been spared the horrors of capitalism. Sarkizov-Serazini’s main point is that living in Soviet Russia is the most essential contributor for increasing longevity, as Russian Socialism is the most life-affirming and life-prolonging social order on the planet, or in Sarkizov-Serazini’s own words: “The entire Soviet Union is the land of longevity.”[dlxv]
6. Socialism as a condition for progress and renewal – Alexander Vasilievich Nagorny (1887-1953)
The propagandistic recipes concocted in the 1920s and perfected in the 1930s served well for decades to come. The current chapter will present examples, consecutively, from the periods of Stalin’s, Khrushchev’s and Brezhnev’s rule. One of the telling cases from Stalin’s period (1924-1953) is that of Alexander Vasilievich Nagorny (1887-1953), a leading Soviet life-extensionist, since 1929 head of the Department of Physiology at Kharkov University, Ukraine. Nagorny’s ideological drive was explicit. In his book Starenie I Prodlenie Zhizni (Aging and Life-extension, 1951), he claimed that “the capitalist system – bringing about overwork, unemployment, undernourishment, diseases – creates all the conditions for the degeneration and dying out of millions of working people.”[dlxvi] Furthermore, according to Nagorny, the assertions that life-extension will lead to overpopulation, to the overburdening of the society by decrepit old people, and that therefore life-extension should not be pursued – are definitive marks of capitalism and fascism, both “German fascism” as well as “American fascism.” Nagorny referred to such assertions as “delusional ideas” and “cannibalistic assumptions”:[dlxvii]
Every honest human being will understand the theoretical falsehood, the anti-scientific and anti-humanist nature of such reasoning. Which honest person, based on everything known about the capitalist society, shall not agree that the struggle for longevity is, first and foremost, the struggle against class exploitative society, and for a classless society, for communism?
In contrast to capitalist societies, in the Soviet Union, it was claimed, the struggle for life-extension was a natural consequence of socialism. In the socialist formation, great achievements in the quality of life and health care have already been made, manifested in the increased birth rates, alongside with the reduction of diseases and mortality, and the resulting prolongation of life. And these indices of health and longevity will be further improved with the further strengthening of the socialist state:[dlxviii]
The face of the new land is becoming beautiful, having been washed by the tears and blood of millions and purified by the holy fire of the Great Socialist revolution. And a beautiful new man is being created, the all-powerful master of innumerable secrets of live and inanimate nature… Yes, people of the past were entirely powerless in this [struggle against aging and death], yet their distant descendants, armed by knowledge, will become stronger than their ancestors: they will eradicate diseases and senile decrepitude, and will make human life so long and so full of joy of existence, that the problem of individual immortality will no longer trouble human beings… We, people of the Soviet Union, already see the dawn of this wonderful world. … The Soviet science takes on this problem, and it will solve it, driven by the desire for human happiness and by the faith in the omnipotence of free human genius.
Other Soviet life-extensionists glorified the Socialist State with an even greater pathos. Thus Georgy Vladimirovich Folbort (1885-1960, between 1926 and 1946 chair of the department of physiology at Kharkov Medical Institute) enthusiastically announced (1938):[dlxix]
The scientific work in the USSR is not abstract. In our country, life itself poses questions that need a scientific solution. … At the time when, in fascist countries, the lack of rights, unemployment and hunger lead people to despair, to contempt for their own life, to suicide – in our socialist country we daily and hourly feel the care of our government and our party, our life is becoming ever more bright and joyful. Nobody wishes to reconcile with the thought that, in old age, he may become a deficient member of our Soviet society; nobody wants to think that he should part with this beautiful, bright, satisfying life. With the high authority granted in our Union to science and its workers, we necessarily feel that the Soviet people place this demand [to solve the problems of aging and longevity] on its Soviet science.
In yet another ode, Zakhary Grigorievich Frenkel (1869-1970) – one of the leading Soviet hygienists, epidemiologists and gerontologists, founder and chair of the department of Social Hygiene at the Leningrad Sanitary Hygienic Medical Institute (1919-1951) – went even as far as to suggest that life-extension is predominantly not a biological, but a social problem, socialism, of course, providing the solution (1949):[dlxx]
In the study of the dynamics of longevity, we should not concentrate on the human organism, on human nature, on its hereditary endogenous properties, but on the structure and organization of human society. … The problem of longevity and of life-extension in the human society is not an individual question, not a biological question, but a socio-historical question, a question of social hygiene.
Nagorny believed Frenkel went too far in deemphasizing the role of “biological factors” in life-extension. Nonetheless, the crucial role of “social factors” (that is to say, of socialism) for longevity was accepted by virtually all Soviet life-extensionists, without exception.
Beside the blatant glorification of the socialist system, more subtle ideological rationales were presented to justify the search for life-extending means in the Soviet Union. These included the tropes of regulation and social equilibrium, the ideals of human progress, of personal development and individual contribution to society, secular humanism, mastery over nature and environment. All these ideas were presented as necessary, fundamental components of the communist ideology.
First, the trope of regulation was pervasive in the Soviet life-extensionist writings, with a strong parallelism between biological and social regulation. Individual longevity entailed a thorough regulation and equilibration of all physiological systems, just as the durability of the socialist state depended on firm, central regulation and planning. Folbort expressed this parallelism in most unambiguous terms, when speaking of the regulation of the daily regimen of the aged, of the equilibrium between material and energy expenditures and their recovery: “The crucial moment determining the productivity of an aged organism is the sufficient time for recovery processes, the sufficient rest. For us, this conclusion is realistic, since our work has been conducted in the Soviet Union, where the right to rest is one of the main rights of every citizen – it is included in our constitution, which regulates our whole life.”[dlxxi]
One of the dominant concepts in Soviet life-extensionism (in Bogomolets, Nagorny and many others) was that of “physiological aging” where all systems of the organism age “harmoniously” and whereby the productivity and enjoyment of life is maintained by the aged to the very latest. According to Nagorny’s and Bogomolets’ reckonings, such a “physiological” life-span should last somewhere around 150-180 years, and its attainment was posited as the primary goal of Soviet longevity science. These suppositions regarding the regulation of individual longevity were directly analogous to the ideal regulation of a socialist society, where the resources should be distributed “harmoniously” and “equitably” through optimal planning, thereby achieving maximal productivity and sustained development of the society.
The second pervasive ideal, aligned with the life-extensionist pursuit, was that of individual and social development. According to Nagorny, traditional schools of philosophy preach deadening concepts and represent futile “attempts to overcome the desire of life.” Religion inculcates “a false teaching of the afterworld,” displacing human hopes for this-worldly life. Pessimistic philosophy “sees a solution in self-destruction.” Hedonists are preoccupied in momentary enjoyments and suppress the thought of impending mortality. Stoics plunge into indifference and calmly reconcile with death. In contrast, communism offers a life-affirming alternative, a philosophy of striving for personal and social development. An extended life is a prerequisite for such an ongoing and lengthy progress. This argument largely recapitulated Metchnikoff’s philosophy as expressed in On the Nature of Man (1903).[dlxxii] Yet, in Nagorny’s exposition, the progressivist ideology was presented as a necessary component of the communist world-view. Nagorny fully agreed with the writer Maxim Gorky’s dictum: “Everything is in the Human Being. Everything is for the Human Being!”[dlxxiii] And if “everything is for the Human Being,” there can be no nobler task than extending human health and human life. The potential for life-extension, in the same way as the general potential for human development, was seen as limitless: “The possibilities of human struggle with diseases, with senile deterioration, with the shortness of human life, are truly boundless … They open before human beings unprecedented, wonderful perspectives and refute any disbelief in the power of free science and in the all-overpowering force of human genius.”[dlxxiv]
Thirdly, extended longevity was not seen exclusively as a goal for an individual, but rather as a means of social development, as a driving force toward increasing the contribution of each and every individual to the society. Personal development indeed required an extended life-span. But healthy life-extension was also (and perhaps even mainly) desired to maximize the productivity of the aged, to enable a greater accumulation of knowledge and skill in order to more fully contribute to the socialist economy and culture. Thus, half a year before the end of his 87 year life, the great Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) expressed his undying desire for life-extension, the desire to continue both his personal development and his contribution to the scientific community:[dlxxv]
The normal duration of life inherent in the human organism is at least 100 years. By our own lack of restraint, disorderliness, atrocious treatment of our own organism, we reduce our normal term of life to a significantly smaller value. … I will endeavor to live to 100 years. I will fight for this.[dlxxvi] …
I very, very much want to live long… at least to 100 years… and even longer. Why do I want so much to live very long? First of all, for my dear, only treasure – my science. I definitely want to complete my works on conditioned reflexes, to strengthen that bridge from physiology to clinics, to psychology, which can already be considered roughly established. I definitely want to go to the congress of neuro-surgeons in England, even before the international physiological congress in Leningrad, and in the forthcoming year I hope to present at the conference of psychologists in Madrid.[dlxxvii]
Indeed, in actuality, the Soviet citizens were often required to sacrifice individual benefits for the good of the society as a whole. Yet, in the communist life-extensionist philosophy, the good of the individual and the good of the community were seen as mutually reinforcing, in agreement with Marx and Engels’s fundamental dictum that “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”[dlxxviii]
Finally, strongly linked to the idea of personal and social development was the idea of mastery over nature, over the external environment and over one’s own body. In fact, the broad concept of personal “development” mainly implied a continuous learning, productivity and contribution, but also the increasing mastery over the internal and external environment. Once again, the possibilities of human mastery over the environment were perceived to be limitless. The external environment was believed to be infinitely modifiable by human agency; and man-made changes in the environment were believed to bear direct influence on the very nature of organisms. In this regard, Nagorny fully agreed with Trofim Lysenko’s (1898-1976) general assertion that “external conditions, being incorporated, assimilated by a living body, cease to be external conditions, they become internal conditions, that is, they become parts of the living body. … In this way, it is possible to govern heredity, substituting the necessary organic and inorganic conditions for the assimilatory activity of the organism.”[dlxxix] Indeed, Lysenko’s statement referred to living organisms generally, not to human beings specifically. Furthermore, Nagorny, in fact the vast majority of Soviet life-extensionists of the 1930s-1940s, had very little interest in heredity, but mainly focused on physiology, on tissue nourishment and regulation, on the processes of stimulation, exhaustion and recovery. Yet, for Nagorny, there was “not the slightest doubt that the external environment created in the interests of health and longevity will exercise a mighty influence on all the properties of the human organism, will change its metabolism, and thereby will change a number of its present natural properties.” And so the Soviet “beautiful new man is being created, the all-powerful master of innumerable secrets of live and inanimate nature,” who “reshapes nature, society and himself.”[dlxxx] The prolongation of the human life-span was seen as one of the primary parameters of such a “reshaping” and as a powerful aid for the mastery in other areas of endeavor.
During the first years of the Soviet state, there was also a wide apprehension that the experiments in “regulation,” “mastery,” “reshaping human nature” and “life-extension” may go wrong. The writer Maxim Gorky (1868-1936, the author of the progressivist slogan “everything is for the Human Being”) allegedly said that scientists could not even draw a human being, let alone improve human nature. And the physicist Peter Kapitsa (1894-1984) anecdotally argued that despite centuries of intervention, women are still born virgins, and Jews uncircumcised. Such apprehensions were particularly strongly felt in the Soviet science-fictional literature of the 1920s. In the famous anti-utopian novel by Evgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin (1884-1937) We (1920), which will later strongly influence Western anti-utopias such as George Orwell’s 1984 (1948) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), the future “One State” is governed by the life-extensionist principles of maximizing human health and life-span. Every citizen (“number”) has the self-evident “obligation to be healthy” and all life-shortening habits are outlawed. The protagonist “Number D-503” thus describes the imperative social regulation for life-extension:[dlxxxi]
I have read and heard many incredible things about those times when people still lived in a free, that is, unorganized, savage state. But this always seemed to me most incredible: how could the state power of those times, even though rudimentary, allow that people should live without any resemblance of our Tablets, without compulsory walks, without the precise regulation of meal times, rising and going to bed whenever they pleased; some historians even say that in those times streets were lighted all night, and people walked and traveled all night. I cannot grasp this. However limited their reason might have been, they should have understood that such a life was a real mass murder – a slow, daily murder. The state (humanism) forbade the complete murder of an individual, but did not forbid the half murder of millions. To kill an individual, that is to reduce the sum of human lives by 50 years, was a crime, but to reduce the sum total of human lives by 50 million years – that was not a crime. Isn’t it ridiculous? ... Like animals, blindly, they bore their children… Our Maternal and Paternal Norms did not occur to them…
In the “One State,” the “regulation” necessary to achieve life-extension and control of population numbers, reaches such a mathematical precision that all manifestations of individuality, chance, freedom, emotion and change are abolished.
Furthermore, Soviet fiction writers also doubted whether the “beautiful, new Soviet man” subject to life-extension, will really be that “beautiful.” In Vladimir Mayakovsky’s (1893-1930) play Klop (The Bedbug, 1929),[dlxxxii] the protagonist is “a former worker, former party member” Ivan Prisypkin, who becomes frozen in 1929 and revived in 1979 (together with his bedbug) by the “Institute of Human Resurrections,” in a world where communism has won worldwide and the “World Federation” has been established. By the Federation “decree of November 7, 1965, human life is sacred” and “every life of a worker should be used to the last second.” Accordingly, since the subject appeared to belong to the “working class,” the community votes for his revival for the purposes of “comparative study of working habits and life-style.” Yet, the resurrected subject is in no way improved by the extension of his life. He is still a depraved, vain and shallow person, imbued by kitsch culture, burdened by unhealthy and disgusting habits, such as swearing, drinking and smoking, and is an anachronism in the new society. It is announced that the “thawed mammal” has been mistakenly assumed to be a “homo sapiens” and a member of its “highest species – the working class.” Rather, he is a “horrific humanoid simulant and a most striking parasite. Both he and the bedbug are of different sizes but of the same essence.” The entire difference between them is that while the one “bedbugus normalis, having fattened itself on the body of a single person, falls under the bed,” the other “philistinus vulgaris, having fattened himself on the body of all humanity, falls on the bed.”
The new society where Prisypkin is revived is not particularly attractive either. In this new world, life is strictly regulated and individual life “belongs to the collective.” The human emotions that the subject displays are entirely foreign to this society. “Infatuation” is considered to be an “ancient disease, where human sexual energy, rationally distributed through the entire life-span, suddenly condenses in a week into a single inflammatory process, leading to irrational and extravagant deeds.” The subject almost causes epidemics of “romances,” “servility” and “drinking,” but these are fortunately suppressed in time. Eventually, the efforts of the society to “elevate [the subject] to a human condition” fail, and he is put in a cage for common derision, and is lucky not to have been shot.
Further examples of the fear that life-extension attempts may misfire, can be found in the works of Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940). In his novel Sobachie Serdze (The Heart of a Dog, written in 1925),[dlxxxiii] the protagonist Prof. Preobrazhensky is a rejuvenator by trade. In the manner of the actual contemporary procedures of Serge Voronoff, he routinely reinvigorates his wealthy aging clients and high-standing Soviet officials by sex gland transplants. Preobrazhensky’s subjects are ridiculed by Bulgakov as vain, lecherous, silly old people, whose rejuvenation does not appear to be of great use to anybody. But this does not seem to be Bulgakov’s main critique of endocrine rejuvenation. As a side line of his trade, Prof. Preobrazhensky transplants human pituitary and testes into a dog, taking the donor organs from Klim Chugunkin, a thief, alcoholic and hooligan, killed in a brawl. As a result, the dog is transformed into a semblance of a human being, named Polygraph Sharikov. Yet, this “new man” retains all the appalling traits (and memories) of the dead donor: incorrigible swearing, drinking, stealing, debauchery, ignorance and cruelty. At the end Sharikov threatens to destroy his creator, he is ceased by Preobrazhensky and forcefully “de-evolved” back into a dog. In this scenario, Bulgakov seems to suggest that, rather than improving human nature, endocrine manipulations may only serve to perpetuate ancient vices in the best case, or mutilate human character in the worst. In both cases, the endeavor is not worth attempting. The rejuvenators, Prof. Preobrazhensky and his assistant Dr. Bormenthal, despite their better manners and higher intelligence, also do not evoke much sympathy. First they restore the existence of a human being (however badly mannered), and then they destroy him when dissatisfied with his behavior. From any angle, Bulgakov seems to present rejuvenation as a futile, immoral and dangerous enterprise.
In another of Bulgakov’s novels, Rokovye Yaytza (The Fatal Eggs, published in 1925, also known as Luch Zhizni - The Ray of Life),[dlxxxiv] the fear of the attempts to “enhance” or “reinforce” life is even deeper. In the novel, the “ray of life” discovered by Prof. Persikov, is capable of tremendously stimulating all life processes. (And indeed, the “stimulating,” “rejuvenating” and “life-extending” effects of irradiation at different wavelengths were actively studied in Soviet Russia in the 1920s by Leonid Vasiliev, Alexander Lubishev, Alexander Gurwitsch, Alexander Chizhevsky, and many others.[dlxxxv]) Yet, instead of the intended beneficial use for raising vigorous live-stock, the ray accidentally gives rise to deadly, voracious monsters. The Russian title of the book, “Rokovye Yaytza,” is commonly translated into English as “The Fatal Eggs” – “Rok” meaning “fate” and “yaytza” – “eggs.” “Rokk” is also the name of the collective farm manager in the novel who, due to ignorance, mistakenly applies the ray to raise giant reptiles, instead of poultry. Yet, it seems to me that Bulgakov may have also alluded in the title to the giant, ferocious (and in some accounts immortal) bird of pray Roc (or Rukh) from Arabian and Persian mythology. Exactly such a monster, Bulgakov seems to suggest, is what we shall likely obtain when attempting to “improve nature” and “enhance life.” Bulgakov’s works clearly imported the anti-utopian and apocalyptic visions of Herbert George Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The Food of the Gods (1904) to the Soviet soil.
In Abolishing Death: A Salvation Myth of Russian Twentieth-Century Literature (1992), the American literary scholar Irene Masing-Delic argued:[dlxxxvi]
Official Marxism-Leninism … denies any form of personal immortality in either transcendental or earthly regions… After the Bolshevik victory of 1917, any expectations of physical or spiritual personal immortality have lost credibility. This was not the case, particularly within the creative and artistic sectors of the intelligentsia. These circles saw old death not only as out of place in a new world but also as incongruous in a world where material justice had allegedly triumphed.
The above examples, however, indicate, on the contrary, that it was within the Soviet “artistic intelligentsia,” particularly men of letters of the 1920s, that the opposition to life-extensionism mainly originated. Curiously, Masing-Delic did not mention Zamyatin’s and Bulgakov’s critical works at all, and referred to Mayakovsky only parenthetically. Many examples that she gave for the expressions of physical immortalism in Russian/Soviet literature – such as Maxim Gorky’s Chelovek (The Human Being, 1898) extolling the fight of human thought against death and coining the slogan “Everything is for the Human Being” as well as Gorky’s Task (1930) praising constructive, life-affirming, collective labor; Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (1955) shooting at a dead tree; or the resurrection of Jesus in the Socialist Revolution in Alexander Blok’s The Twelve (1918) – are rather allegorical and bear no direct relation to scientific biomedical programs. Also, Masing-Delic virtually did not refer to Soviet biomedical scientists, gerontologists in particular, who constituted the core of the Soviet life-extensionist movement.
Contrary to Masing-Delic’s thesis, the widely disseminated writings of these highly authoritative Soviet scientists, as well as the massive support of longevity science from the highest to the lowest ranks of the state, demonstrate that radical life-extensionism was flesh of the flesh of the “official Marxism-Leninism.” The life-extensionists glorified the ruling ideology and found in it the justifications for their research, while the ruling ideologues fostered this research to increase their appeal. Indeed, a direct mention of physical immortality could hardly be found in either scientific, popular scientific or fictional Soviet literature of the 1920s-1940s. Yet the directives of “fighting/defeating death,” “solving the problem of aging”, or, as suggested by Nagorny, extending human life to “two or three times the value of the mean life-span” were virtually equivalent to a pursuit of immortality. Even though the primary task was to achieve a limited extension of life, this was truly tantamount to approaching immortality, as any such expected postponement of the death sentence would give a temporary relief and inspire hopes for further extensions. It may be also significant that the literary opposition to life-extensionism appears to have flourished in the 1920s, before the solidifying of the totalitarian state. Even then, Zamyatin’s We and Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog were not allowed for publication by Soviet censorship (and they were not widely known to the Soviet readership until 1987, the time of “Perestroika”).[dlxxxvii] In the 1930s, with the strengthening of totalitarianism, no such conspicuous literary criticisms of life-extensionism could anymore be found. Life-extensionism became an inseparable part of the Soviet ideological and political system.
Masing-Delic credited the American historian Peter Wiles as one of the first Western scholars to note “’the inordinate interest in physical immortality on earth’ in the USSR (1965).”[dlxxxviii] “Although intrigued by this quest for a world without death,” Masing-Delic maintained, “he does not consider it of great importance, since its repercussions are largely limited to ‘curious phrases’ in some literary works and oddities in medical research policies.” Masing-Delic agreed that “That evaluation of the search for immortality is justified in the case of the social historian, but for the literary scholar, ‘curious phrases’ in literary works offer interpretative challenges.” In that article “On Physical Immortality” (1965) Wiles further stated: “Finally, does this subject matter? I cannot think it does. Nothing serious is going to happen because many Russians want to make physical immortality practicable.” And further, Wiles argued for the inherent or predominant “Russianness” of the life-extensionist movement. From the other side of the “Iron Curtain” he raged against the “Russo-Marxists” and their excessive dreams of changing the world and human nature and achieving super-longevity. In Wiles’ view, these dreams threaten Western sensibilities. According to Wiles, the search for radical life-extension or physical immortality is “specifically Russian” and “is simply not an issue in other cultures.”
It seems that both Wiles and Masing-Delic undervalued the influence of life-extensionism in the Soviet scientific, ideological and political system. I would argue that the incorporation of life-extensionist aspirations went far beyond “curious phrases” and literary “interpretative challenges,” but constituted a definitive element in Soviet biomedical research and practice. As will be exemplified below, the scope of research motivated by life-extensionist aspirations was massive. This definitive ideological element has been commonly omitted by many historical works on Soviet biomedicine.[dlxxxix] Also, life-extensionism formed not a cursory, but an indispensable constitutive element in the communist teleology, as well as in the actual social regulation, as evidenced both by the writings of authoritative Soviet scientists and high-standing officials, including Stalin and Khrushchev (see below). Nonetheless, Wiles also seems to have exaggerated when describing radical life-extensionism as a “specifically Russian” phenomenon. As the present work argues, life-extensionist aspirations were present all across the world, yet in particular countries they were shaped by particular native ideological and social environments; and furthermore, life-extensionists acted as champions for the conservation of their particular native environments. In the USSR, unlike elsewhere, life-extensionism was shaped by communism and served as its prop and mouthpiece.
8. The triumph of materialism
One of the crucial characteristics of Soviet life-extensionism was its professed materialism. Several conceptual paradoxes emerged with reference to the “materialist” vs. “idealist” dichotomy. Indeed, hard-core idealistic life-extensionism, professing a direct influence of the mind over the body, without the mediation of labor, science or art, would be unacceptable by Soviet materialism. At the same time, pronounced behaviorist, holistic, neo-Lamarckist and vitalist tendencies, emphasizing the supremacy of the mind over matter, can be observed in the Soviet life-extensionist works of the 1930s-1940s, further strengthening in the early 1950s, though perhaps in disguise (as in Sarkizov-Serazini, Olga Lepeshinskaya, and Alexander Nagorny[dxc]).
The ‘Soviet Man’ was an avowed materialist. Yet the call to ‘follow nature’ that was so pervasive in contemporary German life-extensionism, received no great emphasis among the Soviets, as the communist ideology considered man to be the master of nature. Material nature needed to be understood in order to master it, but the current natural limitations (such as the processes of aging) were not seen as something insurmountable or entirely binding. Nonetheless, despite such an obvious valorization of the human spirit over nature, the direct influence of the mind over the material body was never explicitly emphasized. Instead, such a power was acknowledged under various materialistic ‘guises’: the “mind” was replaced by the “highest nervous activity.” The great Russian luminaries of physiology – Ivan Sechenov, Vladimir Bekhterev, and foremost Ivan Pavlov – were commonly invoked as the pillars of the scientific view of this activity of the “highest form of organized matter.” In practice, the power of “aspiration” (stremlenie), “enthusiasm,” “mental setting” (ustanovka), or more scientifically sounding “neuro-humoral regulation” or “influence of the brain” (another euphemism for the mind, very common in Sarkizov-Serazini’s writings) were seen as paramount for achieving health and longevity, without any real need for understanding the mechanisms of reflexive nervous activity. Still, any suggestion of a direct influence of the mind over matter would have been completely out of the central materialistic line, and might even lead to dire consequences for those who expressed it. Such a suggestion could lead to being branded as an enemy of “Pavlov’s materialistic teachings” and consequent sanctions (the inquisitorial “Pavlov’s session” of 1950 and its impact on Soviet life-extensionism will be discussed in greater detail later on).
There seemed to have been no direct reference to “holism” either. Nonetheless, the importance of the psychological and social environment was recognized by virtually all Soviet life-extensionists. Vitalism too was officially reviled. But what was, for example, Olga Lepeshinskaya’s “vital substance” (zhivoe veshestvo), whose longevity she hoped to increase by alkaline immersions,[dxci] but yet another expression of vitalism? And what was Alexander Nagorny’s “power of self-renewal” but the good old Hufelandian/Drieschian “restituting” vital force? Interestingly, Nagorny openly attacked “mechanistic views” and expressed his agreement with Hufeland’s vitalistic statement that “the energy of life is inversely proportional to its duration.”[dxcii] Nagorny, however, had a better Marxist authority for his concept of the “power of self-renewal,” namely Friedrich Engels’ statement in Anti-Dühring (1878) that “Life is the mode of existence of albuminous bodies, and this mode of existence essentially consists in the constant self-renewal of the chemical constituents of these bodies.”[dxciii] And indeed, this statement by Engels was one of the most widely cited mottos by Soviet life-extensionists, since Nagorny in the 1940s to Vladimir Frolkis in the 1980s.
Whatever vitalistic or idealistic undercurrents there might have been, materialism needed to be avowed, and avowed convincingly. Those who failed to assert their affiliation with materialism were likely to be repressed. This is exemplified by the fate of Porfiry Korneevich Ivanov.
9. The downfall of idealism – Porfiry Korneevich Ivanov (1898-1983)
Porfiry Ivanov’s teachings advocated a rigorous ascetic regimen, unity with nature, the power of the spirit over the body and the striving toward unlimited longevity. He began his personal experiment on healthy life-extension in 1933. In 1934, he spent half a year wandering barefoot across Ukraine and Southern Russia, exposing himself to the rigors of cold, fasting and meditation, in the tradition of saintly Russian ascetics or Yogis. In the following fifty years he developed and propagandized his system of “tempering-training” (zakalka-trenirovka). The system emphasized, first of all, the communion with nature, living in accordance with natural laws. It urged human beings to overcome their life-shortening “dependence” on technology and artificial comforts, minimize their demands for food, clothing and shelter. Rather, human beings must derive strength directly from nature: “The restoration of human health and strength consists not only in the restoration of the health and strength of our own organism, but also in the restoration of living connections and unity with the external environment and nature” (1951).[dxciv] From such a direct communion with nature, according to Ivanov, radical life-extension, even physical immortality will follow: “We all have the task to prolong life, to maintain health into a very advanced age. And I found such a means, I found it in Nature, through my quest, through my work” (1958).[dxcv] “I write of nature, of its properties leading to health. Nature wishes that man should never die” (1978).[dxcvi] “[I] bow to you deeply and ask you to undertake this task, to act in nature without bounds, then we shall not die” (1983).[dxcvii] In Ivanov’s somewhat paradoxical views, through the initial subjugation to and communion with nature, man can eventually become its master, overcome its destructive influences, become a “god of the earth.”
The ideas of the human communion with nature, and the life-extensionist, even immortalist aspirations were also major themes in the philosophy of “Russian Cosmism,” since Nikolay Fedorov through later major proponents: Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945) – the author of the concept of the “Noosphere”; Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) – the visionary of rocket science and space exploration; and Alexander Chizhevsky (1897-1964) – the founder of Cosmobiology. Thus, in The Scientific Thought as a Planetary Phenomenon (1938), Vernadsky maintained that one of the humanity’s crucial “tasks” is the “prolongation of life, and diminishment of diseases for all humanity.”[dxcviii] And according to Tsiolkovsky, “Life has no certain boundaries and can be prolonged to thousands of years. … Science will sooner or later achieve the indefinite prolongation of life” (1928).[dxcix] Chizhevsky, in turn, was convinced by Tsiolkovsky of the theoretical possibility that “having transformed into a ray form of a high level, humanity will become immortal in time and infinite in space” (1920).[dc] Ivanov may be well considered as a part of this tradition.
It is unclear, however, to what extent Ivanov was actually influenced by “Russian cosmists.” In his writings, Ivanov referred to the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin, the Old and New Testament, the works of the Soviet life-extensionists Alexander Bogomolets and Ivan Sarkizov-Serazini, but not to the “Russian cosmists.” Whatever the possible influence, both for Ivanov and the “cosmists” the idea of a direct interrelationship between human beings and the universe or nature was central. But unlike the major “Russian cosmists,” Ivanov’s views on the human relationship with nature were decidedly a-scientific (Ivanov’s formal education was four years of elementary school), and clearly bordered on pantheistic nature-worship. Thus, Ivanov requested that the follower of his regimen “must, in his mind, ask Nature to give him life and health.”[dci] Having propitiated Nature, and having established amicable relations with her, man can command her, may become her master, a “god of the earth.” Furthermore, Ivanov clearly considered himself to be such a “god”: “I am a god of the earth, having come to earth to save human life.”[dcii]
Ivanov’s method of “tempering-training” showed further, even more conspicuous signs of mysticism, magical and paranormal thinking:[dciii]
The main thing in my method is not the usual gradual accustoming of the organism to adverse external conditions, and not a system of external physical exercises and influences on the organism, which are lengthy and not very effective, but psycho-technical methods of awakening, the development and conscious mastery of internal forces and abilities of the nervous system, especially its reserve forces and mechanisms of heating and immunity. … In transferring the power of my will at a distance, as if by unseen radio waves, I launch my thought first high, to the depths of the Universe, and then low, to the depths of water and earth, and then to all hurting living creatures, and then to man. I penetrate his organism by my internal vision and sensation…as if by electric current, I awaken and enact hidden forces and defensive capabilities.
During a course of treatment on a person, Ivanov would conduct “the same regimen on myself, thinking about that person.” The belief in the direct power of the mind over the body was absolute in Ivanov’s philosophy, as the ultimate purpose of his regimen was the “development of the will and conscious control of our organism in life.” As Ivanov progressed in years, the mystical (and immortalist) elements in his teachings seem to have intensified. By the end of his life (the early 1980s), his following assumed all appearances of a sect, centered at the village of Verkhny Kondruchy, near Lugansk, Ukraine. The most devout followers often told wonders of the teacher’s deeds and referred to him as “Master of the Universe.”
Naturally, such appearances of idealism, pantheism, mysticism, beliefs in the paranormal, “priestliness” (popovshina), a-scientific naturism, and rejection of industry and technology, were unacceptable by the Soviet establishment. Ivanov was imprisoned many times, put under house arrest, evicted and hospitalized in psychiatric hospitals (and reasons for a diagnosis were not difficult to find). Altogether, in 50 years since 1933 to 1983, he spent 12 years either arrested for “anti-Soviet propaganda” or institutionalized. (Through most of this time, Ivanov lived in Krasny Sulin, near Rostov, in the Donbass Region of Southern Russia.) Though Ivanov’s teachings would not seem anything unusual in a “New Age” context,[dciv] within the Soviet establishment Ivanov’s views were a clear case of encroaching “idealism,” “quackery” and/or “mad-man’s medicine,” and were suppressed.
Indeed, Ivanov attempted to blend with the system, ever since Stalin’s times. Thus, he asserted:[dcv]
In general, there is a center, with which all parts are connected and on which their life depends. As in the human organism the center is the consciousness and the brain, so the consciousness, brain and center of our society is our leader, comrade Stalin and our party, and our government. In the love for them and in the connection to them – there is the connection to life, the detachment from them is the detachment from life.
These lines were written on November 2, 1951, after Ivanov had been incarcerated for 10 months, “living without freedom, under a compulsory regimen, doing physical work, developing my body, not minding difficulties, breaking iron walls.” He further glorified “the simple, poor people” as the most likely ones to enter into the communion with nature and to achieve great longevity. He advocated his system as a means to strengthen the health of the Soviet people. He urged the elimination from the socialist society of “egotism, dishonesty, religiosity, depravity, etc.” He requested that his method of “tempering” should be examined scientifically. (And indeed, Ivanov’s abilities to withstand cold were tested both by the Soviet physicians Nikolay Kurchakov and Alexander Kogan at the South Russian Rostov Medical Institute, and by the Germans during their occupation of the Donbass Region.) But generally, his appeals and petitions were dismissed out of hand, and in most cases led to further arrests and hospitalizations. The expressions of loyalty did not help him; both he and his teachings were suppressed as incompatible with the dominant ideological system.
A change of attitude came in 1982, with the publication of Sergey Vlasov’s article about Ivanov, entitled “An experiment lasting half a century” in one of the Soviet Union’s most popular magazines, Ogonek (The Sparkle), with a circulation of over a million copies.[dcvi] The article gave a sympathetic account of Ivanov’s health system, carefully avoiding anything that might clash with Soviet ideological sensibilities, but rather describing Ivanov’s and his followers’ feats of endurance, vigorous appearance, low incidence of diseases. Thanks to the article, Ivanov’s house arrest was lifted, and his health system (briefly summarized in Ivanov’s set of 12 rules – “Detka”/ “The Child”) became known to millions of Soviet people.[dcvii] Many began practicing some of its elements (particularly cold baths and fasting). Ivanov’s health system almost entered the main stream, but never entirely entered it, as great many of his tenets were clearly incompatible either with “dialectic materialism” or with established medical or communal practices. Indeed, throughout his life, Ivanov was an advocate of the existing social order, an ardent supporter of socialism, that he hoped would continue to flourish indefinitely. Unfortunately for Ivanov, the Soviet system did not need his advocacy. The perceived discrepancies between his views and the established ideology were sufficient to brand him as a charlatan or a mad-man, and to repress him.
10. Scientific life-extensionism
Avoiding Ivanov’s mistake, the majority of Soviet life-extensionists preferred to steer clear of anything that would make them suspect of “anti-materialistic,” “anti-scientific” or “anti-Soviet” views. Hence they steered clear of the mind-matter problem, of naturism, of holism, and rather focused on the body proper. They relied on the sheer power of materialistic reductionism to comprehend the workings of the human machine. Based on that knowledge, they hoped to find ways to engineer or regulate this machine for a prolonged service. Such life-extension experiments were conducted on a wide front.
Some of the interventions studied in the 1920s-1940s could appear quite unorthodox even by today’s standards.[dcviii] The rise and fall of endocrine rejuvenation techniques of the 1920s in Europe served not as a deterrent, but rather as a powerful stimulus to search for new, advanced methods of “reinvigoration” and “rejuvenation.” The “stimulation of physiological function” by small doses of nicotine, cocaine, chloroform, ether, mercury chloride, adrenalin, cupper, platinum, silver, gold, and other chemicals, were tested by Nikolay Pavlovich Kravkov in the early 1920s. Kravkov (1865-1924), the head of the Pharmacology Department of the Leningrad Military Medical Academy, was honored as the “founder of Soviet pharmacology,” and was in 1926 posthumously awarded the Lenin prize “for the revival of dead tissues.”[dcix] Since 1930, “stimulating salts” such as MnSO4, MgSO4, MgCl2, CuSO4, K2SO, and so forth, were investigated by Ivan Nikolayevich Bulankin (1901-1960, Kharkov University). In 1935, the USSR Vitamins Institute was established in Leningrad, led by Academician Alexander Schmidt and Prof. Edgar Lederer (student of the German Nobel Laureate Richard Kuhn), that coordinated vitamins production in the Soviet Union and studied their effects, including their anti-aging effects.[dcx] The preservative action of alkaline drinks and baths, such as those of mineral water or baking soda, were extensively studied by Olga Borisovna Lepeshinskaya (1871-1963) in the late 1940s at the Moscow Institute of Experimental Biology.[dcxi]
“Self-renewal of the protoplasm” was sought by Alexander Vasilievich Nagorny (1887-1953) of Kharkov University, who chiefly employed for this purpose alternating regimens of rest and activity, as well as dietary adjustments, particularly the adjustment of protein intake. The search for “the stimulation of protoplasm synthesis” was continued in the 1950s by Nagorny’s pupil, Vladimir Nikolayevich Nikitin (1907-1993), focusing on dietary caloric restrictions. Other stimulants of “protoplasm synthesis” in Nikitin’s arsenal included royal jelly (bee’s milk) and the use of various high energy compounds (“macroergics”) to reenergize the body (ATP, various intermediaries of the Krebs cycle, etc.).[dcxii]
Psycho-regulatory and psycho-stimulating effects on health and longevity were widely discussed. Thus, Maria Kapitonovna Petrova (1874-1948), Ivan Pavlov’s pupil and collaborator at the Institute of Physiology in Leningrad, conducted animal experiments on life-prolongation by “training,” “sparing conditions of brain activity” and neurotropic substances, such as salts of bromine (between 1938-1946).[dcxiii]
The rejuvenating effects of small “stimulating” doses of radiation, light in the infrared, visible and ultraviolet spectrum areas, negative ionization of the air, the use of electromagnetic fields for tissue regeneration (or reinforcing the “mitogenic radiation” in the ultraviolet area) were proposed by Alexander Gurwitsch, Alexander Chizhevsky, Leonid Vasiliev, Alexander Verigo, Alexey Voynar, Alexander Lubishev, and others.[dcxiv]
Since the early 1920s organotherapeutic/opotherapeutic/hormonal preparations for rejuvenation were developed by Vasily Yakovlevich Danilevsky of Kharkov (1852-1938). At the same time, a large number of Soviet surgeons began experimenting with endocrine rejuvenation operations, particularly Steinach’s vasoligation and Voronoff’s sex gland transplantation. The rejuvenators included B.M. Zavadovsky, V.G. Shipachev, A.V. Nemilov, G.M. Kogan, A. Damsky, D.K. Kustria, A.V. Martynov, and Lenin’s surgeon, Vladimir Nikolaevich Rosanov, 1872-1934, since 1929 serving as the chief physician of the Kremlin Clinic.[dcxv] Transplantations of testes were also performed by Yuri Yurievich Voronoy (1895-1961) of Kherson, Ukraine, alongside the transplantations of limbs in animals and one of the first human kidney transplantations conducted in 1933.[dcxvi]
Since the early 1930s, regeneration was induced by mechanical, chemical or electrical irritation by Boris Petrovich Tokin, Lev Vladimirovich Polezhaev, G.P. Gorbunova, P.P. Kanaev and others. These studies were continued in the 1950s by A.A. Zavarzin, M.A. Voronzova, L.D. Liozner, A.N. Studitsky and others. Different pathways toward regeneration were examined by these researchers: de-differentiation and subsequent re-differentiation (the idea first proposed by the St. Petersburg physiologist Evgeny Alexandrovich Schultz in 1904); renewed formation of tissues from non-differentiated cells existing in the adult organism; regeneration from homogenized tissues; enhanced growth of differentiated tissues, etc.[dcxvii]
Since the late 1920s through the 1940s, embryonic and placental tissues were tested for their ability to promote regeneration and rejuvenation – by Vladimir Filatov, Nikolay Krauze, Semen Khalatov, and others. Vladimir Petrovich Filatov (1875-1956), one of Russia’s foremost ophthalmologists, since 1936 director of the Center for the Research of Eye Diseases and Tissue Therapy in Odessa, Ukraine, was a pioneer of reconstructive and replacement surgery, having developed new methods of skin grafts to heal injuries. He was the first to perform cornea transplants from corpses to return sight to the blind. He was also the author of a peculiar system of rejuvenation: the “tissue therapy” that he developed since 1933. In Filatov’s theory, under extreme conditions (such as cold or darkness), conserved or living tissues produce substances (which he termed “biogenic stimulators”) that counteract the stress, and therefore can be employed for the preservation and stimulation of the human organism. Filatov had very little idea of what these “biogenic stimulators” might be or what was their mechanism of action. Yet, his injections with tissues conserved under “extreme conditions” or transplants from such tissues appeared to produce some reinvigorating effects.[dcxviii] This was of course yet another ramification of opotherapy or the therapeutic use of animal parts, that was suggested as early as the ancient Chinese Mawangdui medical manuscripts (c. 200 BCE),[dcxix] the Ayurvedic Sushruta Samhita (c. 300 BCE)[dcxx] and the Talmud (c. 200-500 CE),[dcxxi] and that flourished at the end of the 19th century (with a high manifestation in Brown-Séquard’s rejuvenative sex gland supplements). Yet, Filatov’s theory and the method of tissue preparation “under stress,” as well as the use of isolated human (live or dead) tissues, were novel. Preparations from plants under “extreme conditions” of cold and darkness were employed by Filatov as well.
Yet another theory of “tissue therapy” (derivative from “opotherapy”) was advanced between 1926-1935 by Academician Mikhail Pavolvich Tushnov (1875-1935), who served as the chair of the faculty of microbiology at the Moscow Zoological-Veterinary Institute. As in Filatov’s method, Tushnov’s “tissue therapy,” also known as “protein therapy” or “lysotherapy,” involved the parenteral (intra-venous or intra-muscular) injection of tissue protein preparations. According to Tushnov’s theory, the subsequent reinvigoration of the human organism was due to the physiological activity of the products of tissue degradation (histolysates).[dcxxii] The idea was based on Claude Bernard’s (or rather alchemical) notion that “The two operations of destruction and renewal, the one the opposite of the other, are absolutely connected and inseparable in this sense that destruction is the necessary condition for renewal; the acts of destruction are the precursors and the instigators of those by which the parts are reestablished and reborn, that is to say those of organic renovation.”[dcxxiii] In Tushnov’s theory of protein therapy, the products of tissue protein degradation either stimulate native protein synthesis via negative feedback (in the so-called “auto-catalysis” process) or provide building blocks for such a synthesis. Thus the “waste products” of protein degradation were seen as powerful, even indispensable, agents for tissue maintenance and renewal.[dcxxiv] Since 1940, the regeneration researcher Boris Petrovich Tokin (1900-1984), working at Tomsk and Leningrad universities, used “protein therapy” to treat cancer, as he believed that regeneration is antagonistic to cancer, and that by stimulating regeneration by protein therapy, cancer may be suppressed.[dcxxv]
The “revival of the dead” (ozhivlenie) was yet another powerful direction in Soviet life-extensionism of the period. Some of the first experimental resuscitation devices were developed in the 1920s-1930s by Soviet Russian scientists. In the early 1920s, experiments on extracorporeal revival of organs were conducted by Nikolay Pavlovich Kravkov (Leningrad). A little later, in 1928, Sergey Sergeevich Bryukhonenko and Sergey Ionovich Chechulin of Moscow constructed and applied in dogs the “autojector” – the first effective whole-body artificial circulation device, capable of keeping alive a severed dog’s head.[dcxxvi] In 1933, Nikolay Nikolaevich Puchkov, working at Bryukhonenko’s laboratory, first performed extracorporeal blood cooling using an “artificial blood circulation apparatus” and a heat exchanger. Another Russian scientist, Vladimir Petrovich Demikhov (1916-1998, Moscow) constructed and implanted the first artificial heart in a dog in 1937. Demikhov’s experiments went as far as head transplantations in dogs in 1954 and joining halves of dogs’ bodies in 1956.[dcxxvii]
In the USSR, the art of mummification was developed to high perfection, since Lenin’s mummification in 1924 by Profs. A.I. Abrikosov, V.P. Vorobiev and B.I. Zbarsky. (The mummification was conducted under the directive of Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926), head of the Extreme Committee for the Struggle against Counterrevolution and Sabotage and Commissar of Internal Affairs. A popular poem of 1924 by Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) claimed that “Lenin is even now more alive than anyone of the living.”)[dcxxviii] At the Institute for the Study of the Brain and Psychic Activity in Moscow, founded in 1918 and initially led by the neurophysiologist and psychiatrist Vladimir Mikhailovich Bekhterev (1859-1927), the collection, preservation and analysis of the brains of outstanding personalities (Lenin’s in the first place, but also Mayakovsky’s and others) was a major research project, apparently conducted with the hope of future revival or at least with the hope of future reconstitution of the material basis of their genius. Even more daringly, Bekhterev, in his work on the Immortality of Human Personality as a Scientific Problem (1918) based on the law of energy conservation, suggested the theoretical possibility of immortalization of human “nervous-psychic activity.”[dcxxix] Furthermore, the physicist Lev Sergeevich Termen (better known in the West as Leon Theremin, 1896-1993, the inventor of the first electrical musical instrument “Termenvox” and of the spying/tapping system “Buran”), in 1926, while working in Abram Ioffe’s Physical-Technical Institute in Leningrad, investigated the possibility of preserving the human body by freezing.[dcxxx]
As these examples demonstrate, in the Soviet Union of the 1920s-1940s, life-extensionist aspirations, involving various degrees of hopefulness and various methodologies, represented a central theme in Soviet biomedical science.
11. The Soviet “physiological system” – Alexander Alexandrovich Bogomolets (1881-1946)
Perhaps the best known and most influential Soviet gerontologist and life-extensionist of the 1930s-1940s was Academician Alexander Bogomolets, since 1930 head of the Institute of Experimental Biology and Pathology and of the Institute of Clinical Physiology in Kiev, from 1930 to 1946 president of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, and from 1942 to 1945 vice president of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union.[dcxxxi] Life-extension was the defining motive in his scientific pursuits, as he believed that “even one hundred and fifty years is not the limit of man’s life,” while “one hundred years, far from being the limit of human life, cannot even be considered as the limit of his full physiological activity and ability to work.”[dcxxxii] Under Bogomolets’ leadership, the promotion of life-extension rose to a peak in 1938, with the publication of his book Prodlenie Zhizni (The Prolongation of Life), and the convening of the conference on the “Problem of the Genesis of Aging and Prophylaxis of Untimely Aging,” in Kiev, on December 17-19, 1938, the first publicized gerontological conference in the world, organized on Bogomolets’ initiative and conducted under his presidency.[dcxxxiii] The conference established the grounds for the institutionalization of biogerontological research in the USSR, and the aims of life-extension were explicitly posited by the majority of participants (as described in greater detail in the next sections).[dcxxxiv] According to the conference presenters, and Bogomolets in the first place, the promotion of longevity research was a measure of the care of the Soviet State for the well being of its citizens and a sign of the growing prosperity of the socialist society. And reciprocally, longevity research was seen as a means to strengthen the socialist state and to ensure its continuous flourishing.[dcxxxv].
In his studies, Bogomolets synthesized most of the ‘materialistic’ methodologies for life-extension available at that time. Among the means for the “prevention of untimely aging” recommended in The Prolongation of Life, “prophylactic” hygienic means played a significant role: moderate diet, work, exercise and massage, sex function “not overtaxed,” rest and sleep. Yet, the bulk of the book concerned not “prophylaxis” but “treatment of old age.” The “treatment” included immunological and toxicological means designed to eliminate damaging cells and toxins. It also included biological replacements, such as hormone replacements and blood serum transfusions. By eliminating harmful agents, and supplementing beneficial agents, Bogomolets hoped to achieve a robust and balanced “regulation” of all bodily functions. Bogomolets’ signature technique for the “treatment of old age” was the “anti-reticular cytotoxic serum” (ACS) designed to stimulate the “reticulo-endothelial system” or the “physiological system of connective tissue,” that came to be known as “Bogomolets’ serum.”[dcxxxvi]
The anti-reticular cytotoxic serum method combined several influences, most predominantly (and self-admittedly) Metchnikoff’s. To recall, in Metchnikoff’s generalized systemic theory of aging, the “noble” (differentiated, functional) “elements” (cells and tissues) are opposed and disrupted by “primitive” (non-functional, undifferentiated, “harmful”) cells and tissues. Over-proliferating phagocytes act as the agents “devouring” the noble elements, while the proliferation of non-functional connective tissue was said to replace the “noble” (parenchymal) tissues (e.g. muscle, kidney, lung and brain), leading to their sclerosis, and generally upsetting the functional harmony.
Bogomolets essentially turned Metchnikoff’s theory on its head. He disputed Metchnikoff’s tenet about the non-functionality and detrimental role of connective tissue build-up, but rather saw connective tissue as the sustaining “root of the organism.” “Metchnikoff’s basic error in presenting the picture of senescence,” Bogomolets contended, “consisted not so much in his describing the phagocytes as some sort of cut-throats as his failure to evaluate the importance for the organism of a healthy reticulo-endothelial system.” In Bogomolets’ view, the trophic and immune functions of the “reticulo-endothelial system” or “physiological system of connective tissue” – comprised of “fixed histiocytes [mononuclear phagocytes] residing in or on (1) connective tissue; (2) reticulum of spleen, lymph nodes and bone marrow; (3) endothelial linings of the sinuses of liver, spleen, bone marrow, adrenal and pituitary glands; and (4) microglia; plus the wandering histiocytes in tissue spaces and the blood” – were essential for health and longevity.[dcxxxvii] Thus, even though Bogomolets accepted Metchnikoff’s general idea about the necessity of stimulating or inhibiting particular organ systems in order to reach a sustained harmonious organic equilibrium, he differed from Metchnikoff in the small detail of precisely what organs and systems needed to be inhibited or stimulated.
Thus, Bogomolets asserted, “my point of view regarding the importance of the activity of reticulo-endothelial system for longevity is directly opposite to that of Metchnikoff.”[dcxxxviii] Yet, the use of “cytotoxic sera” as a principal means to inhibit or stimulate particular organ systems (in Bogomolets’ experiments, the “reticulo-endothelial” system) was directly derived from Metchnikoff, or rather from Metchnikoff’s assistant at Institut Pasteur (from 1894 to 1900), the Nobel Laureate in medicine of 1919, Jules Bordet (1870-1961). Metchnikoff believed that cytotoxic sera (whose discovery he credited to Bordet) can be used as a double-edged sword in the fight against aging: in large doses the sera can be used to eliminate or inhibit undesirable tissues, but in small doses they can be applied to stimulate these very same tissues if their proliferation is desired. Metchnikoff thus described the principle of the preparation and action of cytotoxic sera:[dcxxxix]
The principle of preparing these serums is as follows: specific cells, red blood corpuscles or spermatozoa or kidney or liver cells are injected into an animal of a different species. After several injections the serum of the animal becomes active in relation to the cells that have been injected into its body. Bordet discovered these serums. The serums are called cytotoxic, i.e. toxic for various cells. … It has been proven that small doses of cytotoxic serums, instead of killing or dissolving specific elements of tissues, strengthen them. This is similar to a reaction observed in connection with many poisons, namely, large doses kill, whereas small doses cure and improve the condition of certain elements of the organism.
This was the birth of systemic immunotherapy. However, as the precise active dosages of the serum could not be established either by Metchnikoff or by his pupil and collaborator at Institut Pasteur, Alexander Mikhailovich Besredka (1870-1940), this line of research was abandoned. Bogomolets prided himself on solving the problem of establishing the exact doses of the serum (by modifying the Jules Bordet - Octave Gengou “complement-fixation” method of serum titration, formerly used in diagnosing infectious diseases), and thus making the application of “cytotoxic sera” practicable (around 1924).
Bogomolets also changed the primary target of “cytotoxic sera” from Metchnikoff’s “parenchymal tissues” (nervous or muscle tissues, kidney, liver, etc), to elements of the “connective/reticulo-endothelial” tissue. Thus, for clinical applications, Bogomolets’ anti-reticular cytotoxic serum was most commonly produced from the blood of horses injected with cells of the human spleen or bone marrow (defined as elements of the reticulo-endothelial system and predominately obtained from human cadavers), and the resulting serum was injected into patients in small doses calculated to stimulate the activity of the corresponding elements of their “reticulo-endothelial system.”
Bogomolets’ use of “cytotoxic sera” was, of course, a ramification of the more general and ancient idea of using blood for rejuvenation. Bogomolets’ studies in this field were a direct continuation of the research on rejuvenation by blood transfusion started by Alexander Bogdanov at the Moscow Institute for Blood Transfusion. Bogomolets worked at that institute since its inception in 1926 (developing, among other methods, techniques of blood banking for transfusion) and, after Bogdanov’s death, directed it (from 1928 to 1930). The theory of the activity of the anti-reticular cytotoxic serum was also greatly influenced by the concept of colloidal destabilization as a primary cause of aging and disease (professed in the 1920s-1930s by Vladislav Ruzicka and Auguste Lumière). It was also largely based on the contemporary theory of “auto-catalysis,” proposed in the early 1920s by the Austrian researcher Gottlieb Haberlandt (1854-1945) and the Japanese Yoneji Miyagawa (1885-1959) and later developed by the Soviet researchers Mikhail Tushnov and Vladimir Filatov.
The general principle of rejuvenative and regenerative autocatalysis was defined by Bogomolets as follows: “When cells disintegrate, substances of a rather complex structure are formed. … They act on analogous cells, stimulating their functions – nutrition, growth and multiplication, i.e. regeneration.”[dcxl] These substances are the “autocatalysts,” defined as “enzymes that digest or otherwise modify cells similar to the cells that produced them.” When discussing the earlier endocrine rejuvenation methods and the “disillusionment which replaced the enthusiasm for rejuvenation by means of transplanted sex glands,” Bogomolets did not dwell too long on the failure, but undauntedly proceeded toward exploring new means of rejuvenation based on the principle of “autocatalysis” and explaining whatever effects might have been observed in the earlier rejuvenation methods by the same principle:[dcxli]
The search for methods of preserving the ability of the cells to regenerate is one of the primary problems in the fight against untimely aging. In this connection autocatalysis requires particular attention. When sex glands are transplanted for the purpose of rejuvenation it is autocatalysis that stimulates the dwindling function of the analogous glands in the recipient. The products of disintegration of the transplant in some cases succeed in sustaining the regenerative and functional properties of the various organs which have shown signs of decline in activity. This question deserves the most careful experimental study.
According to Bogomolets, regenerative autocatalytic products can be generally produced in the organism thanks to blood transfusion. As suggested by Alexander Bogomolets and his collaborators/assistants at the Kiev Institute of Clinical Physiology – Nina Medvedeva, Natalia Yudina, and Oleg Alexandrovich Bogomolets (Alexander Bogomolets’ son and successor as the Institute director) – during blood transfusion, the autocatalytic products are formed in the process of “colloidoclasia,” that is “damaging the colloids, in this case the particles of albumin that enter into the composition of the blood and cytoplasm.”[dcxlii] The immediate result of the “colloidoclastic shock” due to transfusion is the formation of easily dissolvable and removable protein/colloid aggregates, whose dissolution produces the stimulating “autocatalysts.”
Not only bulk blood transfusion, but also, perhaps even preferably, the administration of the anti-reticular cytotoxic serum in minute, “stimulating doses” was supposed to disintegrate the target tissue in such a measure as to produce sufficient amounts of stimulating “autocatalysts.” These rudimentary (or rather pioneering) concepts of biochemical allosteric feedback regulation were perceived by Bogomolets as a potential basis for a wide range of future regenerative and life-extending therapies:[dcxliii]
A new science is now in process of formation, a science of biochemical, autocatalytic self-regulation of functions. It opens wide perspectives for discovering methods of stimulation of cellular functions, which would intensify their ability for regeneration without causing untimely exhaustion. Some of these methods may be blood transfusion, cytotoxins, etc.
The primary purpose of the anti-reticular cytotoxic serum therapy was to combat “untimely aging,” strengthening the immune (defense), trophic (nutritive), formative (plastic) and functional state of the aged organism. Yet the serum was also employed in the treatment of a host of severe diseases. The ACS was used to increase the resistance of the organism to infectious diseases, such as scarlet fever, typhus, tularemia and brucellosis. It was also used as an adjunct treatment of cancer. “This study will require a long time,” Bogomolets maintained. “Nevertheless, we can already claim that, with the help of stimulating doses of anti-reticular cytotoxic serum, in the majority of cases of cancer patients, we are able to restore the property of the blood to cause dissolution of the cancer cells.”[dcxliv] Insofar as Bogomolets believed that the reticulo-endothelial system plays a crucial role in the nourishment of all tissues, including the nervous tissue, the ACS was employed in the treatment of neurological diseases.
But perhaps the widest application of the ACS, and the most urgent during WWII, was for the healing of wounds and fractures, where the ACS was utilized as a stimulant of the “plastic function of the connective tissue.” Such application of the ACS began before the war, but during the war it became central.[dcxlv] Indeed, the aspirations to radical life-extension were hushed down under the massive deployment of economic and human resources to the war effort. As Bogomolets once regretfully said, “I dreamed to prolong human life. The war interrupted this work.”[dcxlvi] During the evacuation of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences to Ufa, in the Southern Ural region, Bogomolets’ chief occupation was to coordinate the activity of blood banks and provide blood transfusions to wounded soldiers, which saved the lives of many. Yet, the production of the ACS continued during the war, but instead of “combating untimely aging,” its proclaimed purpose was the healing of battle wounds and fractures, in order to expedite the return of soldiers to the front: “Thanks to the application of ACS during the war,” Bogomolets proudly attested, “many wounded with serious fractures have been saved from becoming invalids and have been returned to the front.”[dcxlvii]
The wide variety of therapeutic applications, as well as the general life-prolonging capacity of the anti-reticular cytotoxic serum derived, according to Bogomolets, from the underlying importance of the connective tissue system and from the singular ability of the ACS to either suppress or stimulate this system, depending on the dosage. Yet, according to Bogomolets, the development of this therapy was far from being complete, and a long road lay ahead of it, seeking new therapeutic targets and calibrating proper dosages.[dcxlviii] And thus Bogomolets expressed what might be seen as a definitive element in the contemporary Soviet life-extension science: the unending search for new material agents for life prolongation, unimpeded by former failures. The value of this search is never so much in the present as in the future: [dcxlix]
If it should prove that the small doses of the anti-reticular cytotoxic serum, on repeated introduction into the body are able to prevent untimely sclerosis of the reticulo-endothelial system, this serum will become a very valuable aid in the struggle for prolongation of life. We have begun to study this problem. Here a great deal of circumspection and long experimentation first on animals and later on human beings is needed.
In other words, it may not become such a life-prolonging aid, but if the research does not continue, we shall never know and a potential for life-extension will be lost.
Bogomolets’ work became a central hub in the contemporary international cooperation and in the historical continuation of longevity research. In the 1940s, the ideas of Bogomolets became widely popular in the West, especially in the US. His book, The Prolongation of Life (published in English translation in 1946) was a best-seller. During the Soviet-American anti-fascist alliance, Bogomolets’ serum was massively supplied to the American allied forces. Generally, during this period, the extent of amity between Soviet and American life-extensionists seemed almost incredible by Cold War standards. As Bogomolets wrote in October 1944 to Prof. Irving Fisher, president of the American Life Extension Institute, “I would like the anti-reticular cytotoxic serum, which proved so profitable to us, especially in the struggle with the after-effects of shock, to prove equally useful to our Allies.” And reciprocally, there was a deeply felt enthusiasm of American researchers with regard to Bogomolets’ work. Thus, George P. Robinson, president of the Robinson Foundation that sponsored the translation of Bogomolets’ The Prolongation of Life, hoped “this book may be the first of many steps it will take to promote understanding of the problems of aging.” And the translator, Dr. Peter V. Karpovich affirmed that “with the recent, tremendous development in means for the destruction of human life it is only natural that our attention should turn again to means for the prolongation of human life. … In this connection, the work of the Russian academician, Alexander A. Bogomolets, is of special interest.” Bogomolets’ work, Karpovich believed, “will undoubtedly provoke discussion and may stimulate other investigators to undertake further research in problems related to the conservation and prolongation of human life.”[dcl] And indeed, among others, Bogomolets’ work inspired Denham Harman (the American originator in the 1950s of the free radical theory of aging, which became the dominant theory of aging for several decades) to embark on the field of aging and longevity research in the first place.[dcli] In the 1940s, Bogomolets’ research and the use of the ACS were promoted by the American National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, and by the American-Soviet Medical Society in New York.
Bogomolets’ experiments were reproduced by several American investigators (Reuben Straus, Joseph Skapier, 1946, 1947, and others).[dclii] As the journalist Patrick Michael McGrady testified, as late as the mid-1960s, Bogomolets’ serum was broadly available in the US and on the Continent, as well as all across the Eastern Bloc.[dcliii] Yet, the majority of investigators of the 1950s (such as Max Bürger, Chauncey Leake and Thomas Gardner) failed to observe any far-reaching therapeutic effects.[dcliv] And certainly, no significant extension of human life by the use of the anti-reticular cytotoxic serum was evidenced. Gradually, the serum disappeared from laboratories and pharmacy shelves. This disappearance may be partly attributed to the general superseding of the somewhat cumbersome and not particularly specific anti-sera production, involving horses and cadaver materials, as in Bogomolets’ methods, by the more convenient use of monoclonal anti-bodies for specific immunotherapy, involving the immunization of mice and subsequent culture of human-mouse hybrid cell lines, as proposed by Georges Köhler, Cesar Milstein and Niels Kaj Jerne in 1975.[dclv] Yet Bogomolets’ work might be considered an important stepping stone in the development of specific immunotherapy.
Generally, Bogomolets’ work may be viewed as an essential link in the development of reductionist rejuvenation techniques. As this work has argued, the failure of reductionist endocrine rejuvenation methods of the 1920s greatly impacted on the progression of life-extensionist thought. Many life-extensionists (particularly in France and Germany) turned away from reductionist rejuvenation by pharmacological and surgical means toward more holistic and hygienic approaches. This, however, did not occur to Bogomolets, and in fact to the majority of Soviet life-extensionists. Bogomolets’ work was a direct continuation of earlier rejuvenation methods: Metchnikoff’s and Bordet’s cytotoxic sera, endocrine stimulation (Bogomolets’ first use of cytotoxic anti-sera in 1915 was designed to stimulate the function of the adrenal glands), blood transfusion, and opotherapy (using “auto-catalytic” products of tissue degradation). Bogomolets did not perceive the failures of these methods as prohibitive debacles, but rather as directive signposts for further investigation and improvement. And so, Bogomolets, at the head of Soviet life-extensionists, steadfastly proceeded in the quest for reductionist rejuvenation – an approach indeed definitive of contemporary Soviet life-extensionism. The American biologist Bernard Strehler once likened life-extensionist gerontologists to “Captain Ahab” from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851).[dclvi] They would continue to hunt the white whale of aging, even if they die trying. Bogomolets was “Captain Ahab” of Soviet gerontologists, persistent and resourceful and undeterred by disappointments, whose work became yet another in the succession of failures or, in an ‘Ahabian’ view, not a failure but a directive signpost for the continuation of the search.
With the abandonment of the ACS by medical practitioners and basic researchers, Bogomolets’ name disappeared from the headlines and there have been no recent attempts in the West to research his activities. In the Soviet Union too, the production of Bogomolets’ serum was being gradually reduced until complete disappearance in the 1960s and his work was steadily turning into a vaguely remembered historical curiosity, yet another failed attempt to find a cure for aging. The discontinuation in the Soviet Union of the ACS research might have been due not so much to scientific counter-indications, but to the simple fact that in 1946 Bogomolets died at the age of 65 from tuberculosis that he had battled since his youth. Consequently, his influence and authority in the Soviet scientific establishment ceased. Anecdotally, when Bogomolets died, Stalin felt grossly deceived.[dclvii] Since 1950, “The scientific committee on the problems of physiological teachings of I.P. Pavlov” headed by Academician Konstantin Mikhailovich Bykov (1886-1959), then director of I.P. Pavlov’s Institute of Physiology in Leningrad, undertook a crusade to defend the purity of Pavlov’s legacy and eliminate heresy from Soviet physiology. The main targets of the committee were a founder of evolutionary physiology Academician Leon Abgarovich Orbeli (1882-1958), as well as the longevity researchers Alexey Speransky and Peter Anokhin. In 1952, among others, the committee conducted an investigation into the works of Bogomolets and Ukrainian physiologists. Bogomolets was posthumously accused of “inhibiting in Ukraine the development of Pavlov’s teachings, support of [the genetic theory of] Morganism-Weismannism, idealistic worldview, inculcation of the anti-scientific theory of the physiological system of connective tissue.” (Interestingly, Bogomolets was now subsumed into the same “anti-Pavlov’s” camp as his former adversary Speransky, see below.) Bogomolets’ Institute of Experimental Biology and Pathology (then headed by Alexander Bogomolets’ son, Oleg) was threatened with closure. Nevertheless, thanks to the supplications of Oleg Bogomolets and his collaborator, Valentin Tkachuk, to the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party, Leonid Melnikov, the resolution of “Pavlov’s committee” was softened and the work at the institute continued.[dclviii]
Yet, in the late 1930s-early 1940s Bogomolets ruled supreme. His background was ideologically impeccable. He was a son of Russian revolutionaries, members of the “South-Russian Workers’ Union,” and was born in prison during his mother Sofia’s arrest. In 1917, he immediately accepted the Socialist Revolution, and during the Civil War served as the chief epidemiologist for the South-Eastern front of the Red Army. Since his appointment as president of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and until his death, he had Stalin’s full support. In 1941, he received the Stalin Prize (of the first degree, personally approved by Stalin) and in 1944 received from Stalin the highest distinctions of the Hero of Socialist Labor and the Order of Lenin. In May 1943, Bogomolets had a friendly meeting with Stalin (though, according to Oleg Bogomolets’ testimony, their discussion mainly concerned the contribution of Ukrainian scientists to the struggle against fascism, rather than life extension). Bogomolets was also a close friend of Nikita Khrushchev, who was in the period 1938-1947 the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party (coinciding with the peak of Bogomolets’ prestige). Khrushchev had the “greatest respect” for Bogomolets and referred to Bogomolets’ death “as a disaster that struck us all, a disaster for Ukraine and for science.”[dclix] Thus, Bogomolets might be considered as yet another, perhaps perfect example for the adjustment of life-extensionists to the ruling social and ideological establishment.
Bogomolets often used his firm standing in the establishment, not only to promote his research programs, but also to defend many prominent members of the Ukrainian Academy against purges: the demographer Mikhail Ptukha, orientalist Agatangel Krimsky, economist Konstantin Vobly, physicist Alexander Leipunsky, mathematician Nikolay Krylov, and many others.[dclx] Nonetheless, there was perhaps no greater acolyte of the Soviet state, no person more eager to glorify the ruling regime that has done so well with him, no greater advocate for its continuation, than Bogomolets. Life-extension research, according to Bogomolets, was equally a beneficiary of the present felicitous social order and a major contributor to its further thriving.
In his opening statement at the Conference on the Problem of the Genesis of Aging and Prophylaxis of Untimely Aging, Bogomolets emphatically asserted the superiority of the Soviet system in all matters pertaining longevity:[dclxi]
The gloomy view has been firmly established abroad that the organism is given by nature a certain amount of restorative energy for a preordained number of years. This view excludes the very possibility of fighting the premature wear-and-tear of the organism. We, Soviet scientists, think differently. We believe that senescence, in the majority of cases, comes much before the organism exhausts its capabilities for constant renewal. We also know that the causes of untimely aging are, first of all, social causes. In countries not satisfied with usual forms of capitalist exploitation, in countries where the robbery and murder of defenseless populations, women and children, are becoming habitual, in countries where unbridled cruelty and terror, overwork and poverty reign – there are no, and can never be, basic conditions for the attainment of normal longevity by human beings. It is, of course, not by chance that the idea to unite the scientific medical thought and direct it to the combat of untimely aging originated under the life-giving rays of Stalin’s Constitution, in our Soviet land, where the human being, his happiness, is the highest value.
Similar pledges of allegiance were expressed by the majority of the conference participants, who saw it as their solemn duty to glorify the socialist state, the communist party, Stalin, and Bogomolets and his anti-reticular cytotoxic serum – in this order or variations thereof (and they had better do this). Socialism was seen as a necessary condition for successful longevity research, and successful longevity research was a necessary condition for the development and strengthening of socialism.
12. The world’s first conference on aging and longevity – Kiev, 1938. Controversies
The Conference on the Problem of the Genesis of Aging and Prophylaxis of Untimely Aging, held on December 17-19, 1938, in Kiev under Bogomolets’ presidency, was a pivotal event in the history of aging and longevity research. It was the world’s first publicized scientific conference dedicated to these subjects. And generally, it was a major (though presently scarcely remembered) milestone in the history of Soviet biomedicine. As Dmitry Chebotarev, the long-time president of the USSR Gerontological Society, pointed out as late as 2001, the conference proceedings and Bogomolets’ book The Prolongation of Life were “the main sources of information in the country on the questions of gerontology for all subsequent years.”[dclxii]
The conference purpose was summarized by Nagorny:[dclxiii]
The Soviet Science in fact has long declared war on everything that shortens human life. In our conference, the war is declared openly. We, the representatives of Soviet medicine and biology, throw down the glove to such seemingly invincible enemies as aging and death. The way to victory over untimely, morbid senescence and shortness of life requires an immense collective work of representatives of different specialties, a work directed by a unified plan and with a single leading idea. It must be believed that our conference will provide an impetus to such purposeful work.
The major aim of the conference was the achievement of “physiological aging” which is characterized by “atrophic changes in the organism, gradually and evenly developing in all physiological systems and leading to a harmonious reduction of functional and reactive capabilities, with their adaptation to the reduced capabilities of the aging organism”[dclxiv] and prevention of “untimely aging.” Yet radical and specific goals of life-extension were posited throughout. As Nagorny summarized, “It is known with certainty that the maximal life span can exceed the mean life span 2 or 3 times and even more.” Thanks to the concerted effort of Soviet researchers, longevity would be extended to “no less than its maximal limits, presently known to us, namely 150-180 years.”[dclxv]
It was the duty of Soviet medical scientists to dedicate an immense research effort to make radical life-extension a reality. And the effort was made, though the results were far from approaching anywhere close to the realization of the tasks that the scientists were setting. The need for “further study” was the general conclusion of the conference. Instead of clearing the path toward the prolongation of life, the conference presentations seemed to have complicated the matters almost intractably. As will be exemplified below, the studies presented at the conference were far from providing any conclusive recommendations, and were widely controversial: with reference to themselves, other contemporary studies, past studies and, as will turn out, future studies.
Perhaps the only decisive recommendation was given by Moisey Samuilovich Mühlmann (1867-1940), then professor at the University of Baku, Azerbaijan. According to Mühlmann’s theory (first published in 1900 in Wiesbaden, Germany[dclxvi]), aging is due to a diminishing supply of oxygen to the tissues. The closer the tissues are to the “nourishing surface,” that is to the body periphery, the more is their oxygen supply; while “central tissues” receive less nourishment and oxygen, hence their degeneration. Mühlmann decisively concluded:[dclxvii]
The only factor, distinguishing 130 year old persons from common people of our age, is that they always lived free, in fresh air, in the mountains, where there is much oxygen, especially ozone. Oxygen is the decisive factor, which is so lacking to us, breathing dust and car gasoline, people of the city with so little vegetation. This is what shortens life in the first place, and we end with what we started: the prolongation of life is assured by pure air. … Thus, let the motto of our conference be: much fresh air for a long life.
As decisive were Mühlmann’s recommendations, so controversial were his premises, even in his own time. It was known to the German chemist Justus Liebig already in 1843 that in the mountains, the seat of the long lived, the oxygen consumption is actually lower: “At the level of the sea,” Liebig wrote, “a cubic foot of air contains more oxygen than the same volume of air does on high mountains.”[dclxviii] And the possibility of oxygen toxicity was first suggested by the French zoologist Paul Bert in 1878. In the 1930s, Mühlmann’ theory was forcefully attacked by the leader of German longevity researchers, Max Bürger. Bürger’s criticism of Mühlmann was a central subject in the very first introductory article of the Zeitschrift für Altersforschung of 1938. And in 1954, regarding Mühlmann’s premise that the brain is most remote from the body periphery, and hence should be least supplied by oxygen and therefore most susceptible to degeneration, Bürger maintained that “no organ is better protected against oxygen deficit and sugar deficit than the brain”[dclxix] Hence, Bürger admitted, he “could hardly follow the explanations and justifications for Mühlmann’s ‘physical growth theory.’” Later, the decisively beneficial effects of enhanced oxygen consumption, professed by Mühlmann, were further questioned by the oxidative damage theory of aging, where oxygen and reactive oxygen species were considered as the main causes of age-related damage.[dclxx] Furthermore, in 1952, Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko (1923-2003, since 1958 working at the Institute of Experimental Biology and Medicine in Novosibirsk), suggested that increasing oxygen consumption via deep breathing can upset the O2/CO2 balance and lead to various cardio-respiratory pathologies. He subsequently developed a method of breathing designed to increase CO2 content in the lungs and decrease oxygen consumption.[dclxxi] Furthermore still, the exact threshold at which oxygen becomes toxic for the human body remains widely debated.[dclxxii] Thus, even such a matter of fact proposition as breathing “much fresh air” was controversial within the context of the conference.
The situation was no clearer with regard to physical activity and diet. Nagorny related in complete bewilderment to the findings of the American researcher James Rollin Slonaker (1866-1954) considering the relation of exercise to longevity in rats. In Slonaker’s experiment, the animals were subjected to different levels of physical exertion. It was found that, in the exercising group, the more exercise the animals had, the longer they lived. However, the animals that did not exercise at all, but had “usual mobility,” lived longer than those who exercised.[dclxxiii] The question then arose whether exercise per se is beneficial, or rather which amounts of exercise are beneficial. Nagorny utterly rejected Slonaker’s conclusion that work may shorten life (this conclusion, according to him, was also wholly inconsistent with the goals of socialist productivity and communal involvement). Nagorny did admit that excessive work (as imposed on the workers in the capitalist world of exploitation) can be life-shortening. Yet, Nagorny was entirely unable to provide an exact threshold at which physical work becomes exhaustive, and at which the beneficial effects of stimulation and training are superseded by fatigue and wear and tear.
A series of studies presented at the conference considered at length the questions of the relation of “exhaustion” vs. “recovery,” and associated problems of material and energy “deficits” vs. “excesses,” “fatigue” vs. “training,” “wear and tear” vs. “restoration,” “dissimilation” vs. “assimilation,” “entropy” vs. “extropy.” The regulated maintenance of material and energy equilibrium was the primary objective.[dclxxiv] The authors emphasized the tremendous importance of prolonged rest for the recovery and conservation of the functional reactive activity of aged organisms, yet at the same time stressed the importance of exercise for its improvement. However, the exact prescriptions for the amounts of rest vs. exercise to optimize the functional activity were lacking.
Several researchers considered various aspects of biochemical/metabolic recovery (N.B. Medvedeva, G.V. Derviz).[dclxxv] Alexander Nagorny and his pupil Vladimir Nikitin focused on age-related changes in the synthesis (assimilation) and degradation (dissimilation) of proteins.[dclxxvi] In the general view of Nagorny’s school, the processes of material renewal and assimilation, particularly of proteins, are the main factors for longevity, and “an organism that could entirely replace anything that has lost the ability for self renewal by elements capable of such a renewal, would reveal no aging and would know no death.”[dclxxvii] Accordingly, a vast panel of experiments on material renewal was conducted, at the functional, chemical, physico-chemical and morphological levels, in the blood, various tissues, and in entire organisms, studying a vast array of biological compounds and measures of metabolism available at the time. Yet, the complexity of renewal processes appeared to be too immense for any practical conclusions. As Nagorny admitted, “the factors increasing dissimilation can at the same time be the factors increasing assimilation.” The exact distinctions between factors favoring “assimilation” or “dissimilation,” “recovery” or “exhaustion” were impossible to determine, hence the impossibility of precise recommendations. According to Nagorny, the “paths for the efforts for life prolongation are clear… these are the paths of enhanced self-renewal.”[dclxxviii] Unfortunately, neither Nagorny nor Nikitin quantitatively specified any such paths of biochemical renewal. Neither did the physiologists studying the central nervous system specify any concrete, quantitative paths toward its functional renewal.
A central focus at the conference was on the equilibrium and function of lipids, particularly cholesterol, in aging. This was perhaps one of the first concerted discussions of this issue. Yet the controversies regarding age-related changes of lipid content, their direction, function and origin, raged almost beyond reconciliation. Thus, Prof. Semen Sergeevich Khalatov (1884-1951, in 1929-1947 director of the Department of Pathophysiology of the First Moscow Medical Institute) suggested that excessive cholesterol in the blood of the aged is the result of “leakage of cholesterol from the brain.”[dclxxix] Khalatov’s theory was however strongly opposed by V.I. Solntzev of the Kiev Institute of Clinical Medicine led by Nikolay Strazhesko. Solntzev found it “difficult to agree with Khalatov’s opinion that such a cholesterinemia originates exclusively in the brain.” According to Solntzev, “it can in a large measure depend on an impairment of endocrine glands, … it can be related to decreased oxidative processes, … it can be conditioned also by a diminished function of the liver … fighting various intoxications of exogenous and endogenous origin.”[dclxxx] The complexity of the lipid economy in aging was further emphasized by M.D. Gatzanyuk of the Kiev Institute of Experimental Biology and Pathology directed by Alexander Bogomolets. In his experiments on animals, Gatzanyuk found that, in the course of aging, in some organs and tissues the amounts of fatty acids increase, and in some decrease. Cholesterol was found generally to increase with age, yet with very irregular rates in different organs (ranging from 200% to 10%), and with a wide dependence on diet. Hence an “all-through” manipulation of cholesterol, or of fatty acids, as a means for life-extension appeared difficult. Accordingly, no conclusive recommendations were made, except for asserting the “significance of cholesterol and fatty acids” and the “necessity to study changes in their amount and relations.”[dclxxxi]
In contrast to Gatzanyuk’s findings of a general increase of cholesterol with age in animals, I.M. Turovets and L.I. Pravdina of Strazhesko’s Institute of Clinical Medicine, cited studies either affirming or denying the increase of cholesterol in humans. They presented their own findings that until 80-90 years of age the level of blood cholesterol is relatively high, but after 90 years it decreases. In the long-lived, they found, the amount of cholesterol is normal.[dclxxxii] Further complicating the role of cholesterol in aging, V.I. Solntzev disputed the view that rising cholesterol levels can be an exclusively adverse process or symptom of aging, and in particular Khalatov’s view that increased blood cholesterol is a sign of brain impairment (no distinctions in “kinds” of cholesterol were as yet made).[dclxxxiii] According to Solntzev, increasing cholesterol can actually be a protective mechanism in the aging organism, signifying the organism’s defensive capability: “We have succeeded in showing that hyper-cholesterinemia can be a reflection of the tissue defense reaction against a toxic insult of various substances; it can signify the degree of immunity.” Solntzev further emphasized the complexities involved in relating cholesterol to the rest of physiological parameters: “The most important issue is not the value of cholesterol of itself – cholesterinemia needs to be related to other clinical manifestations, and only from the entire combined clinical picture one may make this or other conclusion.”[dclxxxiv] It was beyond Solntzev’s capacity to create such a “combined” multi-parametric clinical picture, let alone make any decisive conclusions or recommendations.
It appears that the only decisive recommendations on diet were given by Prof. V.A. Elberg (also from Strazhesko’s Institute of Clinical Medicine in Kiev). These included dietetic suggestions to combat obesity and emaciation, as well as considerations of endocrine therapy and mineral supplements (such as iodine and calcium, but no mention of vitamins). Elberg was well aware of the controversies about fats, and particularly cholesterol. In fact, his own findings showed no hyper-cholesterinemia in the aged. Nonetheless, his ‘halachic’ rule was in favor of anti-cholesterol diet:[dclxxxv]
Even though neither we personally, nor Turovets, nor several other investigators succeeded in demonstrating hyper-cholesterinemia in the aged, but rather received values below the norm (Turovets), nonetheless we can but accept as absolutely correct the point of view of Khalatov and Anichkov that cholesterol is an inseparable companion of aging, accumulating in the organism and precipitating in various sites of the organism, mainly in the arterial wall. [Semen Khalatov and Nikolay Nikolaevich Anichkov, 1885-1964, were the first to suggest the cholesterol etiology of arteriosclerosis, c. 1913.[dclxxxvi]] … Therefore we consider it entirely irrational to give the aged in their diet an excessive amount of egg yolk and butter.
However, shortly afterwards, Elberg claimed that “the aged well tolerate fats, especially in the form of butter. … In most cases, administration of easily melting fats, in the form of sandwiches with butter, goose-grease, palmin, cream with milk, etc, is recommended.” In the daily dietary regimen for the aged (to consist of 7 small courses), Elberg included milk with an addition of lactose sugar, porridge, coffee, tea, chocolate, wine, bakery (cookies or white bread toast with butter), honey, fruit mousse. Many of these recommendations might raise a few brows in some more recent “cholesterol-conscious,” “carbohydrate-conscious” or “animal-protein conscious” life-extensionist circles. Even at Elberg’s time, some of these recommendations contradicted those of others. Furthermore, as the above examples show, the recommendations were not entirely consistent within themselves, and with experimental findings. Elbert did strive to reach a dietary “equilibrium,” yet quantitative thresholds between “excesses” and “deficits” were far from being generally established, even less so for individual cases. Elberg admitted that “our dietary recommendations for the aged are limited.” Thus, despite the tone of decisiveness, the recommendations were far from being decisive. More research was required.
13. The quest for reductionist rejuvenation continues
The jury was also out on the questions of endocrine treatments of aging. The endocrine rejuvenation methods that had boomed in the 1920s were given a thorough critical evaluation at the conference. Almost intractable complexities were suggested with reference to these hormonal methods of “revitalization” and “life prolongation.” The difficulties were expressed by Rostislav Evgenievich Kavetsky (1899-1978), at the time working in Bogomolets’ Institute of Clinical Physiology, and later founding and directing the Kiev Institute of Experimental and Clinical Oncology (since 1960). In “Aging and Cancer,” Kavetsky seems to have been entirely baffled by the role of hormones in aging generally and cancer particularly. In the wake of the “endocrine rejuvenation” boom, Kavetsky accepted the possibility that “sex hormones can be categorized as ‘growth hormones’ in the sense that, acting as carriers of tissue differentiation stimuli and thus facilitating the exhaustion of cells’ idioplastic energy, they must exert a certain inhibiting effect on the processes of [cancer] growth.” At the same time, the possibility of a carcinogenic effect of sex hormone supplements was also suggested:[dclxxxvii]
On the other hand, by prolonged injections of large doses of folliculin, it was possible to induce breast cancer, and recently also to induce tumors at the site of female sex hormone injection. It can be assumed that, in these cases, the carcinogenic effect is produced not by folliculin itself, but by some products formed from it under given conditions. Analogous products are perhaps formed in the organism under disrupted hormonal function of the sex glands.
Despite Kavetsky’s present perplexity, he nonetheless envisioned quite optimistic prospects for further research of the role of hormones in anti-aging and anti-cancer treatment:[dclxxxviii]
It should be thought that the struggle with factors leading to an untimely aging of the organism, causing a disturbance of the equilibrium between its systems and tissues, the struggle for a healthy connective tissue, will lead to an elimination of age-related dysfunction between the epithelium and the mesenchyme, and will create preconditions for the prophylaxis of cancer.
The findings of Prof. Nikolay Adolfovich Shereshevsky of Moscow, and of Profs. V.H. Vasilenko and R.M. Mayzlish of Kiev, further questioned the wide applicability of sex hormones for anti-aging. At the same time, the authors demanded an expansion of research on the transplantation of pieces of healthy endocrine organs, and on the therapeutic use of plant hormones.[dclxxxix]
The reaction of Soviet life-extensionists to earlier reductionist “endocrine rejuvenation” methods is perhaps best exemplified by the work of Prof. Vasily Gerasimovich Shipachev (1884-1957) of Irkutsk Medical Institute in Siberia, summarized in his presentation “On the question of the struggle with the organism’s aging” (K voprosu o borbe so stareniem organisma). Shipachev fully shared Bogomolets’ slogan “To live to 150 years” and made quite an effort toward that purpose. Shipachev derived much optimism from the “achievements of the past two decades,” such as “the discovery of [anti-microbial] bacteriophages by D’Herelle[dcxc] and the discovery of mitogenic rays by Gurwitsch.[dcxci]” “During this short time, science became enriched with new data on the physiology and pathology of the endocrine system, which enabled us to find new ways in developing the study of various diseases and to outline ways toward their treatment.”[dcxcii] At the same time, Shipachev passionately criticized earlier methods suggested for life prolongation and rejuvenation. He rejected Metchnikoff’s view of intestinal bacteria as predominantly harmful for the human organism, and accordingly undervalued Metchnikoff’s methods for suppressing such bacteria (by colectomy or “more conservative methods” such as acidic milk products). Rather, Shipachev sided with the views of the 19th century biologists, Louis Pasteur and Eduard Strasburger, who emphasized the positive role of a large part of intestinal flora for human health.
As regards “endocrine rejuvenation” – grounded on the works of Brown-Séquard, Steinach and Voronoff – Shipachev was even more critical. In the 1920s, Shipachev was one of the first and most enthusiastic partisans of endocrine rejuvenation, particularly sex gland transplants (first suggested by Steinach), yet became disillusioned later on:[dcxciii]
Long before the works of Voronoff (in 1921 and 1922), I together with Prof. I.N. Perevodchikov, replicated Steinach’s experiments on animals. Having become convinced in the reinvigorating effect of sex gland transplants on the aging organism, we moved this operation to the clinic and performed it in approximately 100 cases, mainly in aged persons, with the purpose of “rejuvenation,” almost exclusively in men. … It became entirely obvious that the sex gland transplants produce a therapeutic effect, but in no way restore youth… consequently we began to use this operation with therapeutic purposes against cardiovascular diseases… However, the organism’s “rejuvenation” in the sense of restoring youth, that so many had expected, was never achieved in any case.
The sex gland transplants failed to produce any far reaching effects apart from a mild and temporary functional and sexual reinvigoration, failed to restore the youth and prolong the life of the patients. No conspicuous signs of senility were arrested, and within 15 years after the transplantations all the old transplantees were dead. These facts induced Shipachev to search for new ways of rejuvenation: “The results of sex gland transplantations to the aged with the purpose of rejuvenation and to the middle-aged patients with therapeutic purposes, forced me to change at the root the direction of my work.”
The change of direction, however, does not seem to have been radical at all: the subsequent rejuvenation attempts directly developed the earlier rejuvenation methods of Steinach and Metchnikoff. At any rate, they were grounded on the same fundamental reductionist principle, namely, that the human body is a machine and its maintenance can be prolonged by a replacement of its parts. First, Shipachev attempted “pluri-glandular transplantations,” i.e. the transplantation of many young endocrine glands at once, instead of a single sex gland transplant, but soon abandoned these attempts as well (around 1925). Notably, Shipachev never entirely discarded the “high therapeutic properties” of sex gland transplants and sex gland extracts, and their possible use as “additional means in the struggle with aging, but of course not in the way recommended by Steinach, Voronoff and others.” “Much work,” he believed, “needs to be done on pluri-glandular transplants, studying quantitative relations of transplants (or extracts) from different glands, determining the times of use of such preparations in different age groups, etc.” He himself, however, was unable to carry such research through.
After the failed endocrine rejuvenation attempts, Shipachev “gave up the idea of ‘rejuvenation’ of a decrepit old organism and moved the center of gravity to the struggle against the aging of the organism, beginning to search for the means that would extend the boundaries of youth and help to maintain the organism in a flourishing, vigorous state to a very advanced age.” (Here the “change of direction” seems to be purely semantic and hardly perceptible.) Shipachev’s subsequent efforts in “the struggle with aging” were a direct continuation of Metchnikoff’s ideas of combating putrefactive intestinal bacteria (despite Shipachev’s criticisms of Metchnikoff). The only difference was that, instead of suppressing such putrefactive bacteria by diet or their removal by colectomy, Shipachev suggested their replacement in the intestine by young and active bacterial cultures. In Shipachev’s method of “active bacteriotherapy,” “the old micro-flora is washed out of the large intestine by purgatives and enemas, and in its place a new, young culture of intestinal micro-flora is injected.” Shipachev admitted that his clinical observations were very limited, yet reported promising, revitalizing effects for the aged (“the sense of vigor, increased physical strength, ease of joint movements, calm and refreshing sleep, improved mental productivity”). He even envisioned that all across the Soviet Union, “all therapeutic procedures for people above 40 should begin with such active intestinal bacteriotherapy.” (Nowadays, similar methods of intestinal cleansing with an addition of probiotic bacteria are practiced in anti-aging and complementary medicine clinics all across the world.[dcxciv])
Shipachev’s quest for the prolonged maintenance of the human machine did not end there. During the war, he developed a method of plastic reconstruction of the fingers of wounded soldiers from transplanted bones. In all of Shipachev’s endeavors, as perhaps in those of the majority of Soviet longevity researchers, the lack of efficiency of earlier rejuvenation methods was seen not as a deterring factor, but as a stimulus for further work. The underlying premise was entirely reductionist: the maintenance of the human machine must, can and will be extended. If earlier attempts were unsuccessful, that was only due to an imperfect knowledge of the mechanism and an imperfect skill of the mechanic. In Shipachev’s view, and in the view of the majority of Soviet life-extensionists, it was the task of Soviet biomedical science to perfect its skills in order to help engineer a new durable man in a new durable Soviet society.
The search for the mechanisms of aging and longevity reached out much further. Thus Academician Alexander Vasilievich Leontovich (1869-1943, head of the histology department at Bogomolets’ Institute of Clinical Physiology) measured the weight of the brain in human cadavers of different ages and found that the weight of the brain decreases with age. Yet, beside the “simple conclusion” that the aging brain diminishes in weight, Leontovich also proposed that “it is not impossible that people with an especially weighty brain are simply less durable.”[dcxcv] Even more provocative points were raised, as in the work of Natalia Dmitrievna Yudina of the department of pathological chemistry (directed by Nina Borisovna Medvedeva) in the same Institute. One of the findings of Yudina’s study of the “morphological content of the blood during physiological aging” was that the longest-lived of Abkhazia (allegedly aged 90-135) had the highest percentage of type “O” blood. According to other researchers that she cited, the long lived (aged 70-95) were characterized by a prevalence of type “A” blood. Yudina acknowledged at the outset that all the “data on changes of blood in the aged are quite controversial.”[dcxcvi] Even though no practical recommendations followed from such findings, the resolve of the conference participants to continue the search for all imaginable life-prolonging and life-shortening factors was absolute.
The conference’s formal resolution expressed precisely such a determination to continue the effort toward the life-extension of the Soviet people:[dcxcvii] “In the country of victorious Socialism,” the resolution stated, “there have been created all the political and socio-economical preconditions for reaching a normal duration of life by the majority of the population. The Conference sets before the Soviet science the task of a planned work for the effective struggle with premature aging.” The immediate practical tasks were first of all the “surveillance” and “patronage” of the long-lived, and then, research, research and more research into the mechanisms of aging, including “the analysis of cytological and physico-chemical changes in the state of tissues in aging,” the “study of the role of exogenous and endogenous factors accelerating and inhibiting the development of senile changes,” and the “special study of the role of the physiological system of connective tissue, nervous tissue and endocrine organs in the process of aging.” The conference indeed exposed the immense complexity of the aging processes and the tremendous difficulties in finding effective life-extending means. But these difficulties were by no means perceived as reasons to abandon longevity research, but rather as a stimulus for further investigations. This perception of present difficulties as temporary and relatively insignificant in view of the path toward future grandeur, might be considered as yet another characteristically Soviet ideological or psychological trait, as the Soviet ideology very often blocked out of the mind the present hardships, scarcities and persecutions, in the grander vision of the forthcoming perfect communist society.
The same ideological elements – the glorification of the Soviet state and the call to continue on the same path toward an ever more profound reductionist understanding and engineering of the human body, despite the present almost insurmountable complications – were pronounced in the concluding statement of Academician Nikolay Dmitrievich Strazhesko (1876-1952, Kiev):[dcxcviii]
I believe that, in our country, not a single scientific worker, not a single physician or even a common citizen, should stand apart from the study of the genesis of aging and prophylaxis of untimely senescence, and that the entire problem can be solved by the joining of forces of the workers of science with all the workers of our great Union.
According to Strazhesko, the conference’s primary purpose was “to present [for the first time] the state of the problem of the genesis of aging and longevity, … correct the errors made by science in this regard, and set new ways for the subsequent study of the problem.” But the present achievements (or scarcity thereof) were dwarfed in comparison to the achievements of the future. What was required for those grander achievements was the steadfast perseverance on the set course of study, with more scientific collectives involved and more conferences convened. And eventually the continuation of this research, it was implied by Strazhesko, would contribute to the continuation of the socialist state, and vice versa:
I believe that we shall more than once meet at conferences dedicated to the problem of longevity. Our works and results will of course be of extremely vivid interest to the party and to the government, and especially to our leader, comrade Stalin, who dedicates so much attention to the care for the human being. This fact should inspire all who are concerned with the problem of longevity. I believe that by tackling this work with enthusiasm, we shall soon achieve significant results that will be used in the interests of the workers of our great Union.
Thus, with the promise of achievements coming up soon, the convention was adjourned, firmly resolved to convene again. However, no such additional large scale conferences, in fact no major organizational efforts in the field of aging and longevity research, took place in the Soviet Union until 1958, the time of the establishment of the Kiev Institute of Gerontology. And in the world, no such large-scale gerontological conferences took place until the first conference of the International Association of Gerontology in Liege, Belgium, on July 10-12, 1950. Nonetheless, the impact of the Kiev conference for the subsequent development of aging and longevity research, in the USSR and the world, appears to be significant, despite of (or thanks to?) its ideological drive. Not only was it the first concerted discussion of the state of gerontological science, paving the way for all future gerontological conferences and associations, but it outlined problems that would continue to be discussed for the next 70 years.
14. The rule of the collective – Bogomolets’ conference (1938), Lysenko’s conference (1948), Bykov’s (“Pavlov’s”) conference (1950)
The Kiev longevity conference also involved a small-scale Lysenko-type witch hunt – a miniature pilot model for future scientific “purges.” The major target of attack was the neurophysiologist Alexey Dmitrievich Speransky (1887-1961), at the time head of the department of pathophysiology at the All-Union Institute of Experimental Medicine in Moscow (Vsesoyuzny Institut Experimentalnoy Medizini, VIEM). It seems the entire Bogomolets’ camp was displeased with Speransky, and Bogomolets was discontented in the first place. Speransky declined the invitation to participate in the conference, and his school was only represented by his pupil, Prof. Nikolay Vasilievich Puchkov. Bogomolets was clearly offended: “I would like first of all to ask Prof. Puchkov to pass it on to Prof. Speransky that we invited him to take part in the conference and are truly sorry that he did not come.”[dcxcix] The disagreement between Bogomolets’ and Speransky’s camps obviously originated earlier. While Speransky emphasized the predominant role of the nervous system in aging, Bogomolets emphasized the physiological system of connective tissue. According to Speransky’s school, championed by Puchkov, nervous stimulation is of paramount importance for life-prolongation, as it explains the “rejuvenative actions” of a host of agents: transplantations of sex glands, pieces of liver and cadaver skin, transfusion of blood and hemolytic serum, even regeneration induced by tar irritation as in the experiments of Prof. Alexander Vasilievich Vishnevsky (1874-1948, VIEM, Moscow).
In the conference debates, Bogomolets took an opposing stand: “Unfortunately [neither Speransky] nor Prof. Puchkov made a presentation of how Speransky’s school perceives the genesis of aging, so as to particularly emphasize the role of the nervous system.” Bogomolets’ views, in contrast, were better grounded, both scientifically and ideologically:
Here in the Soviet Union, we have a beautiful custom, which I have never witnessed abroad – in our scientific sessions we decorate the podiums with flowers. What is the most essential part in these plants? You would say – the flower of course. But try to cut its root, and the flower will soon wither. We have spoken of the connective tissue as the root of the organism ... Observations show that the signs of aging in many systems, and first of all the physiological system of connective tissue, are manifested incomparably earlier than signs of aging of the nervous system.
As Bogomolets asserted, the emphasis on connective tissue was also more promising therapeutically, as its stimulation by the anti-reticular cytotoxic serum produced marked anti-aging effects, including improved nervous function. (It seems Bogomolets’ anti-reticular cytotoxic serum was the only means for life-prolongation undisputed at the conference; the opposition to it would come later, after Bogomolets’ death, see above).
The Bogomolets-Speransky debate then rapidly descended onto a predominantly political-ideological plane. The attack on Speransky was spearheaded by Prof. Semen Khalatov. Khalatov’s own scientific theories, particularly regarding the brain as the main source of blood cholesterol increase in the aged, were broadly countered at the conference, most strongly by Profs. V.I. Solntzev and A.G. Dinaburg, and Academician N.D. Strazhesko. Yet, in a political-ideological debate, Khalatov was unmatched. A party member since 1921, he knew well how to play on ideological sentiments. According to Khalatov, the views promulgated by Speransky’s school were entirely inconsistent with the aspiring, progressive ideology of the socialist society:[dcc]
In our time, when the life in our Socialist country is flowing in full speed, when every one, enjoying life, wishes to prolong it for as long as possible, the work of our Conference should attract a deep interest of our entire community. Indeed, how