Serge Voronoff

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Serge Voronoff
Born c. July 10, 1866
Voronezh, Russia
Died September 3, 1951
Lausanne, Switzerland
Residence France
Citizenship Russia, France
Nationality Flag of Russia Russian  Flag of France French
Ethnicity Russian
Fields Surgery
Institutions Collège de France
Doctoral advisor Alexis Carrel
Known for Multi-species tissue transplants
Religious stance Jewish

Serge Abrahamovitch Voronoff (Russian: Сергей Абрамович Воронов; c. July 10, 1866September 3, 1951) was a French surgeon of Russian extraction who gained fame for his technique of grafting monkey testicle tissue on to the testicles of men while working in France in the 1920s and 1930s. The technique brought him a great deal of money, although he was already independently wealthy. As his work fell out of favor, he went from being highly respected to a subject of ridicule. Other doctors, and the public at large, quickly distanced themselves from Voronoff, pretending they had never had any interest in the grafting techniques. By the time of his death in 1951 at the age 85, few newspapers noted his passing and those that did acted as if Voronoff had always been ridiculed for his beliefs. In 1999, some speculated that the AIDS virus discovered in the 1980s entered the human population through Voronoff’s transfer of monkey parts into humans in the 1920s. Presently, however, his efforts and reputation have been somewhat rehabilitated.


Early life

Serge (Samuel) Voronoff was born in a village close to Voronezh in Russia shortly before July 10, 1866, the date of his circumcision in synagogue. He emigrated to France at the age of 18, where he studied medicine. In 1895 at the age of 29, Voronoff became a naturalized French citizen. Voronoff was a student of French surgeon, biologist, eugenicist, and Nobel Prize recipient Alexis Carrel, from whom he learnt surgical techniques of transplantation. Between 1896 and 1910, he worked in Egypt, studying the retarding effects that castration had on eunuchs, observations that would lead to his later work on rejuvenation.

“Monkeygland” transplant work

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, trends in xenotransplantation included the work of Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard.[1][2] In 1889, Voronoff injected himself under the skin with extracts from ground-up dog and guinea pig testicles. These experiments failed to produce the desired results of increased hormonal effects to retard aging.

Pre-1920s 14-year old boy (dullard) having his father's glands grafted onto his own testicles; (right) Same boy at age 15.

Pre-1920s 14-year old boy (dullard) having his father’s glands grafted onto his own testicles; (right) Same boy at age 15.

Voronoff’s experiments launched from this starting point. He believed glandular transplants would produce more sustained effects than mere injections. Voronoff’s early experiments in this field included transplanting thyroid glands from chimpanzees to humans with thyroid deficiencies. He moved on to transplanting the testicles of executed criminals into millionaires, but, when demand outstripped supply, he turned to using monkey testicle tissue instead.[3]

Between 1917 and 1926, Voronoff carried out over five hundred transplantations on sheep and goats, and also on a bull, grafting testicles from younger animals to older ones. Voronoff’s observations indicated that the transplantations caused the older animals to regain the vigor of younger animals.[4] He also considered monkey-gland transplantation an effective treatment to counter senility.[5]

His first official transplantation of a “monkey gland” into a human took place on June 12, 1920.[6] Thin slices (a few millimeters wide) of testicles from chimpanzees and baboons were implanted inside the patient’s scrotum, the thinness of the tissue samples allowing the foreign tissue to eventually fuse with the human tissue.[6] By 1923, 700 of the world’s leading surgeons at the International Congress of Surgeons in London, England applauded the success of Voronoff’s work in the “rejuvenation” of old men.[7]

In his book Rejuvenation by Grafting (1925),[8] Voronoff describes what he believes are some of the potential effects of his surgery. While “not an aphrodisiac”, he admits the sex drive may be improved. Other possible effects include better memory, the ability to work longer hours, the potential for no longer needing glasses (due to improvement of muscles around the eye), and the prolonging of life. Voronoff also speculates that the grafting surgery might be beneficial to sufferers of “dementia praecox”, the mental illness known today as schizophrenia.

Voronoff’s “monkey gland” treatment was in vogue in the 1920s.[9][10] The poet E. E. Cummings sang of a “famous doctor who inserts monkeyglands in millionaires” and Chicago surgeon Max Thorek, for whom the Thorek Hospital and Medical Center is named, recalled that soon, “fashionable dinner parties and cracker barrel confabs, as well as sedate gatherings of the medical élite, were alive with the whisper – ‘Monkey Glands’.”[11] The song “Monkey-Doodle-Doo” written by Irving Berlin and featured in the Marx Brothers film “The Coconuts” contains the line: “If you’re too old for dancing/ Get yourself a monkey gland” and in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the entire plot revolves around a professor who injects himself with monkey glands.

 (left) Pre-1920s 20-year old man having his mother's glands grafted onto his own testicles; (right) Same man at age 21.

(left) Pre-1920s 20-year old man having his mother’s glands grafted onto his own testicles; (right) Same man at age 21.

By the early 1930s, over 500 men had been treated in France by his rejuvenation technique, and thousands more around the world, such as in a special clinic set up in Algiers.[12] Noteworthy people who had the surgery included Harold McCormick, chairman of the board of International Harvester Company,[13] and the ageing premier of Turkey.[14] To cope with the demand for the operation, Voronoff set up his own monkey farm on the Italian Riviera, employing a former circus animal-keeper to run it.[11] French-born U.S. coloratura soprano Lily Pons was a frequent visitor to the farm.[15] With his growing wealth, Voronoff occupied the whole of the first floor of one of Paris’s most expensive hotels, surrounded by a retinue of chauffeurs, valets, personal secretaries and two mistresses.[16]

Voronoff’s later work included transplants of monkey ovaries into women. He also tried the reverse experiment, transplanting a human ovary into a female monkey, and then tried to inseminate the monkey with human sperm. The notoriety of this experiment resulted in the novel Nora, la guenon devenue femme (Nora, the Monkey Turned Woman) by Félicien Champsaur.

 Falling out of favor

Voronoff’s experiments ended following pressure from a skeptical scientific community and a change in public opinion.[17] It became clear that Voronoff’s operations did not produce any of the results he claimed.

In his book The Monkey Gland Affair, David Hamilton, an experienced transplant surgeon, discusses how animal tissue inserted into a human would not be absorbed, but instantly rejected. At best, it would result in scar tissue, which might fool a person into believing the graft is still in place. Interestingly, this means the many patients who received the surgery and praised Voronoff were “improved” solely by the placebo effect.

Part of the basis of Voronoff’s work was that testicles are glands, much like the thyroid and adrenal glands. Voronoff believed that at some point, scientists would discover what substance the testicular glands secrete, making grafting surgery unnecessary.

Eventually it was determined that the substance emitted by the testicles is testosterone. Voronoff expected that this new discovery would prove his theories. Testosterone would be injected into animals and they would grow young, strong, and virile. Experiments were performed and this was not the case. Besides an increase in some secondary sexual characteristics, testosterone injections did little. Testosterone did not prolong life, as Voronoff expected. In the 1940s, Dr. Kenneth Walker, an eminent British surgeon, dismissed Voronoff’s treatment as “no better than the methods of witches and magicians.”[18]

Death and burial

Voronoff died on September 3, 1951 in Lausanne, Switzerland, from complications following a fall.[19] While recovering from a broken leg, Voronoff suffered chest difficulties, thought either to be pneumonia or possibly a blood clot from his leg that moved to his lungs.[19]

As Voronoff was no longer respected, few newspapers ran obituaries[19] and those that did acted as if Voronoff had always been ridiculed for his beliefs.[19] For example, The New York Times, once one of his supporters, spelt his name incorrectly and stated that “few took his claims seriously”.[19]

Voronoff is buried in the Russian section of the “Caucade Cemetery” in Nice.

 Legacy and reputation

Pre-1920s doe with grafted testicles.

Pre-1920s doe with grafted testicles.

Screen shot from the 1988 Russian movie Heart of a Dog.

Screen shot from the 1988 Russian movie Heart of a Dog.

In the early 1920s, strange-looking ashtrays depicting monkeys protecting their private parts, with the phrase (translated from french), “No, Voronoff, you won’t get me!” painted on them began showing up in Parisian homes.[20] At about this same time, a new cocktail containing gin, orange juice, grenadine and absinthe was named The Monkey Gland after the work being done by Voronoff in the 1920s and 1930s.[21]

Voronoff was the prototype for Professor Preobrazhensky in Mikhail Bulgakov‘s novel Heart of a Dog, published in 1925,[22]. In the novel Preobrazhensky implants human testicles and pituitary gland into a stray dog named Sharik. Sharik then proceeds to become more and more human as time passes, picks himself the name Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov, makes himself a career with the “department of the clearing of the city from cats and other vile animals”, and turns the life in the professor’s house into a nightmare until the professor reverses the procedure.

In the 1990s, Voronoff’s negative reputation was softened. In November 1991, one of the oldest peer-reviewed medical journals in the world, The Lancet, suggested that the file on Voronoff’s work be reopened and in particular that “the Medical Research Council should fund further studies on monkey glands”.[4] By 1994, there were calls for a qualified apology from the orthodox medical establishment for dismissing Voronoff’s work.[16] In particular, since modern medicine has established that the Sertoli cells of the testes constitute a barrier to the immune system, rendering the testes an immunologically privileged site for the transplantation of foreign tissue, the thin slices of monkey testicles Voronoff implanted into the patient’s testicles may in theory have survived to produce some benefit. There have recently been successful experiments reducing insulin requirements in diabetics by implanting into them pancreatic islet cells from pigs coated in Sertoli cells to insulate them from attack by the immune system. No immunosuppressive drugs were required. [23] In 1998, the sweeping popularity of Viagra brought forth references to Voronoff.[18][24] However, in 1999, some speculated that the AIDS virus discovered in the 1980s entered the human population through Voronoff’s transfer of monkey parts into humans in the 1920s.[25]

By 2003, Voronoff’s efforts in the 1920s reached trivia factoid status for newspapers.[26] However, as recently as 2005, Voronoff’s work in the 1920s and 1930s was noted for setting the basis for the modern anti-aging strategy of replacing hormones – the internally secreted substances that decline with age – to regain the vitality and physical attributes associated with youth.[27]


Voronoff married his first wife, Marguerite Barbe (died 1910), in 1897. His second wife was Evelyn Bostwick (died 1921), a wealthy New York socialite – they married in 1919. Bostwick’s daughter from a previous marriage, Betty Carstairs,[28] became a noted British power boat racer. Voronoff’s third wife, Gertrude, became the Condesa da Foz upon Voronoff’s death.

Works by Voronoff

  • Voronoff, Serge. (1920) Life: A Study of the Means of Restoring. Publisher: E. P. Dutton & company, New York. ASIN B000MX31EC
  • Voronoff, Serge. (1923) Greffes Testiculaires. Publisher: Librairie Octave Doin. ASIN B000JOOIA0
  • Voronoff, Serge. (1924) Quarante-Trois Greffes Du Singe a L’homme. Publisher: Doin Octave. ASIN B000HZVQUQ
  • Voronoff, Serge. (1925) Rejuvenation by grafting. Publisher: Adelphi. Translation edited by Fred. F. Imianitoff. ASIN B000OSQH5K
  • Voronoff, Serge. (1926) Etude sur la Vieillesse et la Rajeunissement par la Greffe. Publisher: Arodan, Colombes, France. ASIN B000MWZJHU
  • Voronoff, Serge. (1926) The study of old age and my method of rejuvenation. Publisher: Gill Pub. Co. ASIN B000873F7A
  • Voronoff, Serge. (1928) How to restore youth and live longer. Publisher: Falstaff Press. ASIN B000881RLU
  • Voronoff, Serge. (1928) The conquest of life. Publisher: Brentano’s. ASIN B000862P0E
  • Voronoff, Serge. (1930) Testicular grafting from ape to man: Operative technique, physiological manifestations, histological evolutions, statistics. Publisher: Brentano’s. ASIN B00088JAL4
  • Voronoff, Serge. (1933) Les sources de la vie. Publisher: Fasquelle editeur. ASIN B000K5XTTO
  • Voronoff, Serge. (1933) The Conquest of Life. Publisher: Brentano’s. ASIN B000862P0E
  • Voronoff, Serge. (1937) Love and thought in animals and men. Publisher: Methuen. ASIN B000HH293C
  • Voronoff, Serge. (1941) From Cretin to Genius. Publisher: Alliance. ASIN B000FX4UP8
  • Voronoff, Serge. (1943) The Sources of Life. Publisher: Boston, Bruce Humphries. ASIN B000NV3MZ6

Notes and references

  • Cooper, David K. C.; Lanza, Robert P. (April 28, 2003) Xeno: The Promise of Transplanting Animal Organs into Humans. Publisher: Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19512-833-8
  • Hamilton, David. (1986) The Monkey Gland Affair. Publisher: Chatto & Windus. ISBN 0-70113-021-0
  • Réal, Jean. (2001) Voronoff. Publisher: Stock. ISBN 2-23405-336-6
  1. ^ Musitelli, S. (June 1, 2004) The Aging Male Welcome born-again Dr Faust! Volume 7; Issue 2; Page 170.
  2. ^ Bynum, W. F. (June 30, 2006) The Times Higher Education Supplement Dig for gland of hope and glory;Books;History of science. Section: Features; Page 29.
  3. ^ Winegar, Karin. (February 5, 1989) Star Tribune Youth is a disease that time cures. – Goethe. Section: Variety; Page 01E.
  4. ^ a b The Lancet (November 30, 1991) New glands for old. Volume 338; Issue 8779; Page 1367.
  5. ^ Sengoopta, Chandak. (September 22, 19930 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine Rejuvenation and the prolongation of life: science or quackery? Volume 37; Issue 1; Page 55.
  6. ^ a b Gillyboeuf, Thierry. (October 2000) The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society. The Famous Doctor Who Inserts Monkeyglands in Millionaires. Pg. 44-45.
  7. ^ Time magazine (July 30, 1923) Voronoff and Steinach.
  8. ^ Voronoff, Serge. (1925) Rejuvenation by grafting. Publisher: Adelphi. Translation edited by Fred. F. Imianitoff. ASIN B000OSQH5K
  9. ^ Ferris, Paul. (December 2, 1973) The New York Times The history of cell therapy and its use in modern clinics.
  10. ^ Klotzko, Arlene Judith. (May 21, 2004) Financial Times Science matters. Section: FT Weekend Magazine – Of All Things.
  11. ^ a b Sengoopta, Chandak. (August 1, 2006) History Today Secrets of Ethernal Youth. Volume 56; Issue 8; Page 50. (A review of how the discovery of hormones, the body’s chemical messengers, revolutionized ideas of human nature and human potential in the twentieth century.)
  12. ^ Common, Laura. (April 25, 2000) The Medical Post[1] Great balls of fire: from prehistory, men have tried implants and extracts from macho animals to cure impotence, but it was only relatively recently that they began to understand why they did so.
  13. ^ Grossman, Ron. (March 31, 1985) Chicago Tribune Lost lake shore drive: Mourning an era; Mansions of rich and famous yield to giant condos. Section: Real estate; Page 1.
  14. ^ Jones, David. (December 11, 1986) The Times Christmas Books: Believe it or not – Adam and Eve to bent spoons / Review of books on beliefs.
  15. ^ A Time article from 1940 says Lily Pons: “was kissed by an ape at Dr. Voronoff’s monkey farm near Menton, France”. Another TIME article, this time from 1936, says “Singer Lily Pons went to see the monkeys kept by Menton’s famed Rejuvenating Dr. Serge Voronoff, got too close to a cage, was soundly bussed by an ape named Rastus.”
  16. ^ a b Le Fanu, James Dr. (January 6, 1994) The Times The monkey gland secret. Section: Features; Page 15.
  17. ^ Illman, John. (August 4, 1998) Rocky Mountain News Pre-viagra men given monkey cells in the 1930s, Russian doctor grafted glands. Section: News/National/International; Page 26A. (from The Observer
  18. ^ a b The Cincinnati-Kentucky Post (November 5, 1998) Medical monkey business. Section:News; Page 22A
  19. ^ a b c d e Hamilton, David. (1986) The Monkey Gland Affair. Publisher: Chatto & Windus. ISBN 0-70113-021-0
  20. ^ Nugent, Karen. (April 9, 2000) Telegram & Gazette “Xeno-grafting” explored \ Clinton doctor writes the book. Section: Local news; Page B1.
  21. ^ Hirst, Christopher. (October 8, 2005) The Independent 101 cocktails that shook the world #37: The Monkey Gland. Section: Features; Page 57.
  22. ^ Tatiana Bateneva. In the quest for longevity humans are ready to become relatives with any anymals (Russian)
  23. ^ R. A. Valdez-Gonzalez, “Xenotransplantation of porcine neonatal Islets of Langerhans and Sertoli cells: A 4-year study,” European Journal of Endocrinology, vol. 153, no. 3 (September, 2005), pp. 419-427.
  24. ^ Campbell-Johnston, Rachel. (August 5, 1998) The Times The price of priapic paradise. Section: Features; Page 16.
  25. ^ Scanlon, Jim. (June 1999) The Coastal Post. Did Transplanted Chimpanzee Testicles Start AIDS Epidemic in 1920s? (reviewing a letter in the April, 1999 issue of the scientific journal Nature)
  26. ^ mX (February 27, 2003) It’s true. Section: News; Page 7. (printing, “Russian transplant pioneer Serge Voronoff made headlines in 1920 by grafting monkey testicles onto human males.”)
  27. ^ Kahn, Arnold. (February 1, 2005) Journals of Gerontology, Series A, Biological Science & Medical Science Regaining lost youth: the controversial and colorful beginnings of hormone replacement therapy in aging. Volume 60; Issue 2; Page 142.
  28. ^ Irish Times (August 9, 1997) Weekend Books: A fast lady called Joe. (review of The Queen of Whale Cay: The Eccentric Story of ‘Joe’Carstairs, Fastest Woman on Water by Kate Summerscale ASIN B000J3LK3O )
WHO INSERTS MONKEYGLANDS IN MILLIONAIRESThierry Gillyboeuf[Spring 9 (2000):44-45]

The first human xenotransplants were made in 1920 in France, by a professor of Russian origin, Serge Voronoff (1866-1951). At the age of 18, he left Russia to study medicine in Paris; he became a naturalized Frenchman in 1895. Dr. Alexis Carrel taught his young friend, an ingenious and skillful surgeon, the technique of transplanting. In 1896, Voronoff left for Egypt, where he stayed until 1910. There, he took an active interest in eunuchs who, castrated when they were children, revealed certain deficiencies. Voronoff was convinced according to his own observations that testicles not only have a genital function, but also that they act on the skeletal, muscular, nervous, and psychological development of the individual. Already in June 1889, physiologist Adolphe Brown-Séquard (1817-1894) injected himself under the skin with an aqueous extract of dog and guinea pig testicles, ground up and mollified–an opotherapy or juice treatment. In line with the eugenicist trend in medicine of the 1920’s and 1930’s, Voronoff intended to “rejuvenate” human organisms with a transplant of glands from chimpanzees and baboons, who were thus elevated to the rank of brotherly species with mankind. “I dare assert,” he wrote, “that the monkey is superior to man by the sturdiness of its body, the quality of its organs, and the absence of those defects, hereditary and acquired, with which the main part of mankind is afflicted.” For him, aging was the result of a slowing down of endocrinal secretions, and particularly sexual hormones. Brown-Séquard’s experiments soon proved inefficient. But Voronoff had already transplanted chimpanzee thyroids on people suffering from thyroidal anomalies. And a transplant of a chimpanzee’s bone on a wounded soldier in 1915 suggested to him the idea of transplanting a monkey’s testicle in a man. According to him, glandular transplants would allow the production of the hormone for an extended time period, contrary to opotherapy which required repeated injections with not really convincing results. Between 1917 and 1926 Voronoff tested out his theory on animals, doing more than 500 homo-transplants on rams, goats, and even a bull. According to his observations, older animals transplanted with younger animals’ testicles regained lost vigor.

On the 12th of June, 1920, he performed the first (official) transplant of a monkeygland on a man. The monkeygland would be cut in pieces of about two centimeters long by a half centimeter wide and a few millimeters deep. The surgeon would then introduce two grafts in the scrotum, which he fixed with stitches taken off after eight days. Among forty men operated on during the 1920’s-30’s at a private clinic, the Villa Molière in Auteil, at a nursing home, Ambroise Paré in Neully, and the Rue Montaigne nursing home in [end page 44] Paris, we find listed nine employees, seven doctors, four engineers, four men of letters, three architects, three manufacturers, two attorneys, two university professors, one man of private means, one agronomist, one painter, and one worker. Eight of them were of foreign extraction. Nine were between the ages of 20 and 40; eighteen were between 41 and 60; seventeen were between 61 and 80. Voronoff’s notoriety kept growing. In 1926 he wrote a book, Studies of Aging and Rejuvenation with Transplants, in which he explains and develops his theory, offering what appear to be quite convincing results.   

By the early ’30’s, more than 500 men had been operated on in France, along with thousands of others all over the world–in the U.S.A., Italy, Russia, Brazil, Chile, and India. In England, where vivisection was strictly forbidden, surgeons transplanted human testicles. Voronoff was overwhelmed by his success. The supply of monkeys (chimpanzees and baboons) was insufficient. Beside the difficulties in catching them, many of the monkeys were killed on the spot for their fur, and many died during transport. As early as 1923, the governor general of occidental Africa suggested that monkey-houses could be put up in French Guinea to provide monkeys for France. Voronoff built his own monkey house in Menton. Transplant practice was now applied to women. To overcome the consequences of menopause, Voronoff transplanted ovaries from female monkeys into women. But he also attempted an odd experiment, transplanting a woman’s ovary in Nora, a female monkey. He then inseminated Nora with human sperm …. with no result. Inspired by this odd experiment, the French writer Félicien Champsaur wrote the novel Nora, la guenon devenue femme (Nora, the Monkey Turned Woman)–one of the unexpected results of Voronoff’s notoriety. Though he was still convinced of the validity of his theory and the efficiency of his methods, Voronoff was forced to end his experiments because of pressure from the scientific community, which was quite censorious and doubtful about his results, and because of the opinion of the public, who eventually realized that they had been misled by “the famous doctor who inserts / monkeyglands in millionaires a cute idea n’est-ce pas?”

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