Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 1–30

Organotherapy and the emergence of reproductive endocrinology

  • Merriley Borell

DOI: 10.1007/BF00127955

Cite this article as:
Borell, M. J Hist Biol (1985) 18: 1. doi:10.1007/BF00127955


Early scientific investigation of the reproductive process was neither a cause nor a direct result of changing social attitudes toward sex. It was instead part of the continuing search, initiated in the 1890s, to discover internal secretions that might be isolated and prove useful in therapy. Laboratory scientists, nonetheless, were among the many groups altering understanding of human sexual physiology in the first quarter of this century. The new data they generated regarding the dependence of human sexuality and fertility on chemical substances elaborated by the ovaries and testes became part of the evidence which hastened that quite tortuous transformation called the sexual revolution.

Increasingly, as social reformers demanded more information about human reproduction, scientists were asked to provide it, and scientific concerns were shaped in the process. In the 1920s, especially in the United States, studies of the physiology of reproduction began to receive financial backing from social reformers. This was because for many, contraception had become a fact of life. Expression rather than repression of sexuality was accepted as being necessary to the stability of the fundamental social unit, the family. Theoretical and practical incentives for continued study of the reproductive process could thus be joined in common effort. This convergence of goals occurred just as the gonadal hormones were being isolated. The 1920s, therefore, mark an important juncture in the congruence of interests represented by theoretical science on the one hand and expressed social needs on the other.

As a result of this convergence of interests and goals, physiologists gained a new realm of influence, claiming authoritative knowledge over a subject which once had been allocated to the priest and then, by the mid-nineteenth century, transferred to the physician. Since that formative period other research scientists, such as Alfred Kinsey and, more recently, William Masters and Virginia Johnson, have explored that niche and applied the scientific method to study of behavioral and physiological aspects of the human sexual response. They have been beset by many of the same tactical issues that confronted the earliest investigators of reproductive physiology. The definition, specification, and measurement of phenomena relating to sexual and reproductive activity have been as inherently difficult as they have been taboo.79

Traditional resistance to scientific study of the reproductive process was overcome in the early twentieth century by the expectation that this particular line of inquiry would lead to understanding and therefore medical control of the complex of disorders—physiological, psychological, and social — associated with the generative glands. Early investigators, particularly in Britain, did not wish to be social reformers. Especially in the 1910s such a stance would have threatened their credibility in a field determined to establish itself as a theoretical science. Once scientific progress was assured, as it was from about 1920, new problems opened for investigation and began to be motivated by social needs as well as by the concerns of a rapidly developing science. Especially in the United States new resources encouraged this work, allowing development of the specialized focus on gonadal hormones represented by the emerging field of reproductive endocrinology.

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1985

Authors and Affiliations

  • Merriley Borell
    • 1
  1. 1.Bakken LibraryMinneapolisUSA