Book Review: Aroused

Vasectomies touted as a means of sex-drive rejuvenation by market-driven physicians; estrogen pills distributed haphazardly later linked to uterine cancer; and operations performed on unwitting patients – these are just a few of the horrors that Randi Hutter Epstein unveils in Aroused about the dubious and unethical endocrinological practices of the nineteenth-century through to the present day.

Epstein’s ability to explain the science and discovery of hormones in layman terms makes this read a surprisingly easy one. Learning how oxytocin was discovered, for example, makes the ‘love hormone’ almost equally as riveting to read about as it is when it’s released in the bedroom. And I didn’t realise until now how much I needed to know that pregnancy tests in the 1960s consisted of the urine from a possibly pregnant woman being “injected into a mouse”.  After approximately 100 hours, “the mouse’s ovaries were examined. If they were swollen and speckled red, the woman was pregnant” (94). Fascinating.

Luckily for the poor piss infused mice we now have Clearblue, a company that makes a fortune profiting on the uncertainties and emotional turmoil that funds the multibillion dollar fertility industry.

From the offset, we’re introduced to twentieth-century neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing, the leading expert on the pituitary – the pea sized gland that dangles from your brain and controls several hormone glands such as the thyroid and adrenals. His research marks a turning point in endocrinology and his discoveries see him intertwined with most scientists and their experiments throughout the book.

Cushing conducted many a study on both animals and humans that were so inhumane and unorthodox that they were questionable even then, which makes for a bloody insightful read. For example, his thing was researching the suspected release of a growth hormone from the pituitary, which could be the sought after ‘cure’ to being short. To test his theory he invited dwarfs to his clinic, fed them pituitaries extracted from cattle, and observed them to see if they grew. He also sent one of his students to bribe a coroner into letting him slice open the brain of a “circus giant” to see if his theory that a possible tumour surrounding the pituitary was the cause of the man’s extraordinary height. My mouth was agape in horror as I ploughed through the pages of this book, each page containing its own horrific little surprise.

The concept of the pituitary as a miracle growth hormone transformed into a money making commodity by the 1960s as desperate parents found themselves living in a society that profited from promoting self-doubt (not that dissimilar to the world we live in now).

It was a common perception by ‘professionals’ that “short kids […] were less likely to marry or land jobs compared to their lankier brethren” (129). It was genuinely believed that shortness could be “cured”. So much so, one family named ‘The Balabans’ were told by their paediatrician that if they wanted their son to be taller, and not hindered throughout his life by his missing inches, he would need a pituitary gland shot every day for a year. This meant 365 pituitaries.

Pituitaries though were obtained from dead people, and fresh dead people at that. Mrs Balaban was fortunately a Dr’s wife and an affluent white, middle-class America. She had her friends from all over the show sending her pituitaries in the post. She found herself with so many pituitaries that with her husband she founded the National Pituitary Society.

But by 1984, the “tragic reality that batches of growth hormone had transmitted a deadly agent came to light during the AIDS epidemic in the mid-1980s” (168). It wasn’t known before then that deadly viruses could be transmitted this way. The process of extracting the growth hormone from the pituitary had been assigned to a new processing centre where the virus was picked up. It left those who’d been treated with that batch infected with CJK, a virus found in the same family as mad cow disease, which was once only found in British cattle. Recipients of the growth hormone, who had been taking it for decades, were at risk of rapidly developing sponge-like holes in their brain and with no cure it resulted in sudden death. There was no record of who had received that batch of the hormone so the authorities simply warned everyone on the programme what might happen to them. As recently as 2007, families from around the world have been suing doctors and the pharmaceuticals who denied any wrongdoing for the unnecessary deaths of their family members.

Naomi Oreskes of The New York Times says in a not-so-flattering review of Epstein’s book, that “[e]ven more disturbing than reading about these practices is that for the most part Epstein shrugs them off”, and I couldn’t disagree more. This is not a book that aims to delve into the politics of the endocrinological wrong-doings, but an introduction, as it states in the blurb, “to the leading scientists who made life-changing discoveries about the hormone imbalances that ail us, as well as the charlatans who used those discoveries to peddle false remedies”.

The fact that Epstein puts the charlatans under the spotlight at all is enough to suggest that she’s not shrugging the immoral practices off. This is a book that sparked in me an undiscovered interest in the history of medical science. It’s also unequivocally relevant today in a world that sees GPs lured in and dictated to by the major pharmaceuticals and government contracts. Epstein highlights the unprecedented level of corruption found in an industry that us unwitting mortals put our faith into. Yet, as is often the case, it all comes down to the route of all evils – $$$.

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