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The Most Secret Quintessence of Life

Sex, Glands, and Hormones, 1850-1950

Less than a century ago, physicians, scientists, and cultural commentators became fascinated by the endocrine glands and the effects of their secretions on our bodies and minds. Of all the characteristics supposed to be governed by them, the attributes of sex evoked the wildest interest. The gonads, it was revealed, secreted chemicals that not only influenced the biological expressions of sex, but seemed to generate the vitality and energy that made life worth living.
Through a series of case studies drawn from Central Europe, the United States, and Britain, The Most Secret Quintessence of Life explores how the notion of sex hormones enabled scientists to remap the human body, encouraging hopes that glandular interventions could cure ills, malfunctions, and even social deviance in ways inconceivable to previous generations. Many of these dreams failed, but their history, Chandak Sengoopta shows, takes us into the very heart of scientific medicine, revealing how even its most arcane concerns are shaped by cultural preoccupations and anxieties.

360 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2006

Biological Sciences: Anatomy

Gender and Sexuality

History: History of Ideas

History of Science



“In his new book Chandak Sengoopta has produced more than an enlightening account of the investigations of scientists and clinicians into the mysterious secretions which appeared to control aging, creativity, youthfulness, and sexuality. The great interest of the study is Sengoopta’s demonstration of the ways in which such inquiries were culturally framed. Whether it is in citing laboratory reports or popular novels, he shows the vast range of intellectual, therapeutic, and cultural purposes to which the glands were turned.  In so doing he resurrects the reputations of a number of pioneers whom subsequent generations of scientists ridiculed or consigned to oblivion. This is an engaging work which will be required reading for any student of the history of medicine, but one which will be especially prized by humanists for so brilliantly clarifying the interactions of western science and culture.”--Angus McLaren, author of Twentieth-Century Sexuality: A History

Angus McLaren

“Chandak Sengoopta has accomplished a remarkable feat: a meticulously researched, carefully argued book that is also accessible and a pleasure to read. The Most Secret Quintessence of Life is essential reading for anyone interested in the development of endocrine research and therapeutics. It also makes a significant contribution to the history of modern notions of sexuality and gender, providing a solid base for future research and analysis.”--Ornella Moscucci, author of The Science of Woman: Gynaecology and Gender in England, 1800–1929

Ornella Moscucci

 “TheMost Secret Quintessence of Life is an original work filled with rich, new research, relying on important primary literature which has not, until now, been plumbed and digested. In this book, Chandak Sengoopta offers both a history of hormone discovery and a chronicle of how this discovery transformed our concepts of the body and how our existing concepts of sex and sexuality, in turn, informed our concepts for understanding hormones.”--Anne Fausto-Sterling, author of Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality

Anne Fausto-Sterling

"It is easy to write interestingly about sex, harder to be scholarly about this fascinating subject, and hardest of all to be both scholarly and interesting. Chandak Sengoopta has achieved this last feat. The Most Secret Quintessence of Life is a major contribution to the history of sexuality and its medical investigation during the formative period of what is now the thoroughly respectable medical speciality of endocrinology. . . . This fine monograph is cultural history of medicine at its best."

W. F. Bynum | Times Higher Education Supplement

"Examining a century’s scientific and popular fascination with endocrine glands and their effects on the body, Sengoopta . . . . concludes that in the end, it was all about sex. . . . This focus on sex allows Sengoopta to follow multiple historical relationships, particularly those between clinicians and basic scientists and between biomedicine and the wide popular culture."

Sandra Eder | Science

"Sengoopta’s superb integration of sources from physiology, gynaecology and literary fiction illustrates how social and scientific temptations shaped endocrinology."

Cheryl Logan | British Journal for the History of Science

Table of Contents

1. The Gonads before the Endocrine Era
2. The Age of the Internal Secretions
3. Sexuality, Aging, and the Gonads: New Physiology and Old Values
4. Ending Gonadal Hegemony: Sex and the Endocrine Orchestra
5. The New Hormones in the Clinic
Epilogue: The Gonads, the Brain, and the Neurohumoral Body

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