In the past few weeks I have been limping with a painful left hip—secondary to a bit of age-related osteoarthritis. Oh, to be young again! Or at least rejuvenated! Those thoughts crossed my mind twice in the past few days. First when I came across an article in the National Post about a 60-year-old Dutchman who applied to the courts to have his birth date legally changed to be 20 years younger. Second, when I read about the Irish Nobel laureate (1923) poet W.B. Yeats’ (1865–1939) attempted rejuvenation.

The courts turned down the Netherlander’s request, ruling that while he was entirely at liberty to feel and act 20 years younger, he cannot recalibrate his birth certificate. My sympathies to him! On 1 January 1995 I had to enter compulsory retirement per UBC rules of the time. I left with a professor emeritus title and a lifelong parking privilege, but also I left with a heavy heart because I was still physically and mentally capable of productive academic and clinical work. Chronological age is for the records; social and cultural concepts related to age may lead to ageism. 

The first rejuvenation-related article appeared in Lancet in 1889. It was a widely read report by physiologist Charles Edward Brown-Sequard (1817–1894). To counteract the fatigue and senility and even death presumed to be caused by “spermatic anemia” (excessive seminal fluid loss by self-stimulation and nocturnal emissions), he subcutaneously injected himself with gonadal tissues and reported significant improvements in energy levels and intellectual functioning. 

Following up on Brown-Sequard’s findings, the Viennese physiologist, Eugene Steinach (1861–1944) performed vasectomy and vasoligation in animals. He believed that disrupting the outflow tract of sperm-producing cells would cause a back pressure with resulting atrophy in one portion of the testis, and a proliferation of other portions. According to his report, older, emaciated, tottering rats became vivacious following this procedure. As a biologist but not a surgeon, Steinach persuaded noted genitourinary specialists to perform the delicate operation on their patients. Soon other surgeons also began to “Steinach” their patients, sometimes while they were undergoing other operations. To achieve a blind study, sometimes the procedures were carried out without the patient’s knowledge or permission. Exaggerated and even false rumors of revitalization following the procedure attracted prominent patients. In 1923 Sigmund Freud at age 67 had this procedure done along with a number of Viennese physicians, and indeed, in 1934 W.B. Yeats was operated by Norman Haire (1892–1952), London physician and author of a book, Rejuvenation (1924). Haire quoted Yeats as saying that before the operation he had been unable to write anything new. A few years later Yeats wrote that the procedure had “revived [his] creative power.” The popular press heralded the outcome of this procedure as life changing. Critics of the procedure pointed out that improvements, if any occurred, did so because of the treatment of the primary problem of the patient and not the openly or secretly performed vasal ligation. They found no improvement in patients who had the procedure done for normal old-age symptoms. “Steinaching” certainly did not reverse the aging process and eventually Steinach and his followers admitted to the limitations of their work. By the 1930s interest in recreating youthfulness had waned. In 1935 testosterone was isolated and a new era in endocrinology opened.

Birth certificates are written in stone and cannot be changed. Social and cultural changes move slowly, but significantly. Trial and error, sometimes followed by success, characterizes medical progress. I am currently standing in line to find out if and when I might be able to have my afflicted joint rejuvenated.
—George Szasz, CM, MD

Suggested reading

Brown-Sequard CE. Note on the effects produced on man by subcutaneous injections of a liquid obtained from the testicles of animals. Lancet 1889;134(3438):105-107.

Ellmann R. The New York Review of Books. Yeats’s second puberty. Accessed 11 April 2019.

Kirkey S. National Post. If 50 is the new 40, should we be allowed to change our birth certificates? 31 March 2019.

Kozminski MA, Bloom DA. A brief history of rejuvenation operations. J Urol 2012;187:1130-1134.

Wikipedia. Eugen Steinach: life and career. Accessed 11 April 2019.

This post has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

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