While the search for an "elixir of life" that could reverse the effects of old age was a common dream among alchemists, that dream never really materialized. Despite stories of legendary figures such as the Comte de St. Germain and Nicholas Flamel, alchemy, and the quest for immortality, had largely died out by the 19th century. Still, the ancient dream never really died out. With the rise of modern medicine and greater understanding of the biological causes of disease, the prospect of people living longer and healthier lives seemed more achievable than ever.
And so it must have seemed in the spring of 1889, at a meeting of the Societe de Biologie in Paris. It was there that the 72-year-old medical pioneer Charles Edouard Brown-Sequard startled his audience by announcing that he had been reversing the effects of his aging using a series of injections. Though it was common knowledge that he had been working on methods of reversing the aging process for many years, this claim that he had actually succeeded was, to say the least, mind-blowing. The special compound he had been using was made from the heart, kidney, and liver of a dog and a guinea pig, both of which had been freshly killed to ensure their organs were as fresh as possible. After mixing the crushed tissue with water and filtering the compound, he then injected it into himself using a hypodermic needle. While he had thoroughly tested his hormonal compound on animals, testing it on himself was still a radical thing to try.
And the gamble paid off reportedly. As Brown-Sequard told his audience, not only did the compound make him feel younger as a result, but his treatment had produced a 'radical change" in his physiological and psychological functioning. His physical endurance and intellectual energy was greater and there was also a marked increase in the "arc of his urine." He boasted that he could work for three hours nonstop in his laboratory, something he hadn't been able to do in years.
Even before this startling revelation, Edouard Brown-Sequard was already a medical superstar with newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic describing his various contributions to medicine, and a few of his more off-beat suggestions for how to stay healthy (think of him as the Doctor Oz of his day). Some of the various remedies he had devised for treating pain, spinal problems, and consumption (tuberculosis) were already being carried by pharmacies around the world and patients knew to ask for his "Brown-Sequard pills" by name. If he was claiming to have discovered the secret of youth, people paid attention.
Some of his colleagues began doing their own experiments with this new "Life Mixture" (as it was called in the newspapers). One of these colleagues, a Dr. Variot, created his version of Brown-Sequard's compound by pestling together fresh tissues taken from rabbits and guinea pigs and then injecting it into three paupers in their fifties. Reportedly, none of the subjects had heard of Brown-Sequard's discovery and were simply told that they would be injected with "strengthening fluid." According to Variot's description, all three men were had been weak and depressed before being injected but, as a result of their treatment, became "strong, fresh, and cheerful." Unfortunately, two other paupers didn't experience any benefit from the treatment though Variot announced that he intended to try again with other patients.
Soon afterward, William A. Hammond, former Surgeon-General of the United States, publicly announced that he was carrying out his own experiments testing Brown-Sequard's discovery. After getting detailed instructions from Brown-Sequard directly over how to prepare the compound, Hammond took similar tissue from a freshly killed lamb (which was less expensive than using a guinea pig). His first research subject was an elderly man (described as "very decrepit") who received injections in his leg once every two days. While Hammond stressed that his work was preliminary and that his final research study would likely take years to run, the fact that someone of his eminence was taking Brown-Sequard's discovery seriously was enough to generate an enormous demand for the injections.
In the meantime, skeptical medical experts were weighing in with a more balanced perspective on Brown-Sequard's work. As one 1889 editorial pointed out, the idea that old age could be effectively reversed using the kind of compound Brown-Sequard was describing went against everything that had been learned about the human body up to that time. While it was certainly possible that the human lifespan could be made longer through healthier living and preventing disease, the skeptics warned that Brown-Sequard's discovery was likely too good to be true.
Some critics were downright vicious in their condemnation. Charles Mills, professor of mental disease at the University of Pennsylvania openly argued that Brown-Sequard was likely senile. "I think it is a result of advanced years." he said "He is in his dotage, for he certainly would not have advanced it a dozen years ago. An elixir of life in the very nature of things is an impossibility. An individual may be temporarily improved in health by stimulating injections of various substances, and such a result, joined with an affected medical condition, gives rise to a temporary delusion in the mind of the patient that he is rejuvenated, The theory is far-fetched. it is nothing more than a shade of the middle ages without any reality. It belongs to the same category as perpetual motion, squaring the circle, and is but a modern version of Ponce de Leon in search of the magic pool." Even William Hammond came under attack for his own research in a case of guilt by association.
Despite the controversy, the prospect of elderly patients regaining their youth was enticing enough for numerous physicians to start offering the injections to paying customers. While Hammond and other medical experts warned about the need for careful preparation of the Brown-Sequard compound, butchers across the United States faced unprecedented demand for freshly killed lambs and goats so their organs could be used for the injections. By the end of 1889, more than 12,000 physicians would be injecting their patients.
Though the Brown-Sequard fad would fade soon enough, it took some surprising turns along the way...
To be continued