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Scientific Prolongevity

By the end of the eighteenth century, this vision of an extended middle age was shared by a growing number of philosophers. Yet, instead of linking their hopes for prolongevity to the simplistic lifestyles of the past, they placed their faith in the future discoveries of sciences. For individuals such as Benjamin Franklin, William Godwin, and Antoine-Nicolas de Condorcet, it was not the careful herdsman or the earnest farmer who had the best hope for a long life but the modern-day scholar and scientist. Rather, only with progress did they hope to envision a century-long existence. "The rapid progress true science makes," wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1780, "occasions my regretting sometimes that I was born so soon.. . .All diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured, not excepting even that of old age, and our lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian standard." Condorcet shared a similar vision placing the extension of life as part of the advance of civilization. "[T]he day will come, he wrote, "when death will be due only to extraordinary accidents or the decay of the vital forces, and that ultimately, the average age span between birth and decay will have no assignable value.. . .Certainly man will not become immortal, but will not the interval between the first breath that he draws and the time when in the natural course of events, without disease or accident, he expires, increase indefinitely?"

Although the philosophers only envisioned this future, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, new generations of prolongevity writers experimented with a variety of procedures for attaining a long life. Although some still discussed the importance of hygiene and diet, others advocated more extreme approaches to the eradication of old age. Their work generally reflected the medical community's rejection of the notion that old age was simply an inexorable decline in vital energy. Rather, by the middle of the century, elite physicians began to link old age to specific physiological changes, first in the tissues of the body, and then in the cell. If, as these medical authorities argued, old age was a disease caused by pathological changes in the body, the key to longevity lay in deterring this pathological process or restoring senile cells to their adolescent condition.

Clearly influenced by the discovery of the germ theory and the finding of cellular pathology, prolongevity advocates such as Arnold Lorand, Elie Metchnikoff, and Charles A. Stephens sought to find a way to stop the cell from aging, and, ultimately, to eliminate old age entirely. Although these writers shared the language of the new scientific age, the range of their prescriptions was wide. Stephens, for example, declared that aging was linked to the imperfections of aging cells. With proper cellular nutrition, he believed, the aging process could be eliminated. Elie Metchnikoff argued that the cause of aging, and the destruction of the aging body, were cells termed phagocytes that poisoned the body and led to its decline. Advocating a diet rich in lactic acid, he promised the elimination of intestinal putrefaction and the destruction of microbes that led to the body's decay. In contrast, Arnold Lorand found that "senility is a morbid process due to the degeneration of the thyroid gland and of other ductless glands which normally regulate the nutrition of the body." He established a system of hygienic and therapeutic measures that were designed to improve the functions of the glands.

Other prolongevity writers took a more experimental and invasive approach. For C. E. Brown-Sequard, for example, the aging of the body was directly linked to a weakening of the sexual function. While previous generations of advocates had argued for celibacy in old age, in order to preserve vital energy, Brown-Sequard declared that these glands could be rejuvenated scientifically. In 1889, at the age of seventy-two, the neurologist announced that he had restored his own youthfulness with a mixture of animal sexual glands. Receiving widespread popular interest and acclaim, the lay press in both Europe and America reported the success of his program. One drug company in 1889 even began producing a toxin called Spermine, composed of semen, bull's testicles, calf's liver, and calf's heart.

Although patients lined up for injections, the initial popularity of the product and Brown-Sequard's approach failed to lead to long-term success. Nonetheless, throughout the early twentieth century, toxins and operations promising to remove the effects of old age continued to reach an eager market. In the 1920s, L. L. Stanley injected a mixture of crushed testicular substance into patients, and Eugene Steinach performed an operation that tied off the vas deferens and redirected sperm from the testicles back into the body. Although some in the scientific community greeting the supposed efficacy of these procedures with skepticism, by 1928 one researcher estimated that the Stanley procedure had been performed effectively with over fifty thousand patients.

Regardless of their prescriptions, these "scientific" prolongevity writers agreed that aging was a disease that caused specific decline. Although they tended to see the characteristics of old age in far less positive terms than had Cornaro, they did not feel that the process for delaying old age had to begin at an early age. Many actually intervened in the lives of even the extremely old, hoping to restore energy or renew the senile cells. They had little doubt that once the proper scientific research had been completed old age would disappear; people would live in a state of middle age until the end of life.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 3Prolongevity - Early Prolongevity Writers, Scientific Prolongevity, Anti-longevity Literature, Conclusion