What do I know about hormones? They're a familiar part of everyday life. They affect my emotions, sleep patterns, stress levels, desire, sexual and reproductive cycles, experience of aging, immune system and more. I blame them regularly for bad days. But I still understand very little about how this system within my body works. Whilst my grasp of chemistry may be sketchy, I’m increasingly fascinated with the way hormones have been imagined and described, and why attempts to synthesise and control these molecules have been so powerful and compelling.
Hormones are substances that connect: agents of communication within our bodies, and also secretions that travel across different bodies and ecosystems. The development of hormonal medicine – endocrinology – connects horses, pigs, slaughterhouses, glands, piss, prisons, soya beans, frogs, yams, sisal, Puerto Rican and American women, exploitation and liberation through networks of research and extraction for the medical-industrial complex.
My research into the use of plant materials and plant knowledge used in pharmaceuticals led me (via stories of wild yams, cortisone and the contraceptive pill) to a growing interest in hormonal medicine as a field that fundamentally reimagined the terrain of the body. Hormones and steroids entered the pharmaceutical market-place not simply as ‘cures’ for a specific disease, but as agents of modification.
The history of hormone research is deeply entangled with ideas of ‘natural’ bodies, gender, sexuality, control of reproduction, and the suppression of disobedient bodies. Nineteenth century ‘organotherapists’ peddled gland medicines claiming to increase male virility and strength, and control ‘hysterical’ women (a ‘biopolitical imbalance’ pointed out by Paul B Preciado) – but experiments in synthesising hormones eventually led to the possibility of changing and adapting bodies in ways that challenge these binaries.
Preciado writes: ‘Hormones, beginning with estrogen and progesterone and followed by testosterone, go from having the status of a molecule to having that of pharmakon, from silent chains of carbon into biopolitical entities that can be legally inserted into a human body in a manner that is intentional and deliberate. Hormones are bio-artefacts made of carbon chains, language, images, capital and collective desires.’ 1
The term 'hormone' was coined by British physicians Ernest Starling and William Bayliss in 1905. The word was derived from the Greek hormon 'to arouse, excite or activate' and defined as 'the chemical messengers which speeding from cell to cell along the bloodstream, may coordinate the activities and growth of different parts of the body.' 2 Their conceptualisation of hormones connected with an early idea of information theory. 3 If these internal secretions could be imitated and inserted back into bodies, might it be possible to change the messages, and therefore behaviour, of a body? It was a powerful idea, and ‘in the first half of the twentieth century, hormones took pride of place as life’s master molecules, and the endocrinologist took precedence over the geneticist as the scientist offering the means to control life’. 4
Starling and Bayliss’ work inspired decades of research and development in hormone and steroid based medicine in the US and Europe, following a longer tradition of experimentation and knowledge development in other parts of the world. Chinese medicine is credited with the earliest study of the hormonal system – around 200 BC the Chinese were isolating sex and pituitary hormones from human urine and using them for medicinal purposes and they also extracted plant-based saponins to produce hormones. 5 Indigenous medicine systems around the world have used plant medicines for many areas of health now associated with hormones – including menstruation, sexual health, contraception, abortion, childbirth, and menopause.
Whilst traditional knowledge around reproductive health was increasingly silenced by the growing (male-dominated) world of institutionalised medicine 6, elements of indigenous medicine were also explored and exploited. Black Cohosh, used by Native Americans for a variety of ailments and for regulating menstruation and menopause, was included in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia in 1830. In 1875, Lydia Pinkham used it as one of the main ingredients in her 'Vegetable Compound' that promised to ‘cure entirely the worst form of Female Complaints’. 7 Pinkham's compound became one of the first examples of aggressive mass-marketing and patent medicine, and (thanks to it's alcohol base) was memorialised in a drinking song, The Ballad of Lydia Pink, that was the basis of The Scaffold's 1968 hit, Lily the Pink.
Extracting and imitating bodily secretions can be a messy business. By the 1930s, chemists had identified a range of specific hormones, and were devising ways of mimicking them using cholesterol from animals; but this required a good relationship with the abattoir and was very expensive – large quantities of animal ovaries, testes, gall bladders, adrenal glands and urine were needed. Human sources were also used – in 1931 a biochemist in Berlin collected 25,000 litres of men's urine from a police barracks to isolate 50mg of androsterone 8.
Piss trickles through the history of hormones, as a potent secretion that travels through human and non-human bodies. In South Africa in the 1930s, chemists established a pregnancy test using the African Clawed Frog, Xenopus laevis: the frog was injected with human urine and if the frog ovulated, the woman was pregnant. 9 The accuracy of this test led to Xenopus being shipped out to global laboratories for two decades, announcing pregnancies around the world through frogspawn in tanks. Donna Haraway discusses our deep reliance on animals though the story of HRT drug Premarin (pregnant mares' urine) which, by 1997 ‘became the number-one prescribed drug in the United States, reaching the sales figures of $2 billion by 2002.’ 10
Whilst animals remain entangled in the hormone and steroid industry, from the 1930s onwards pharmaceutical companies were looking for cheaper source materials for producing these drugs and chemists began experimenting with plants. In 1949 a breakthrough in the use of cortisone as a cure for rheumatoid arthritis further fueled a global rush to find cheap ways to produce hormones. Structurally (and this is where I get a bit lost) thousands of hormonal compounds are based on the basic four-ring steroid skeleton. Lara Marks describes how 'very minor variations in this skeleton ... determine both the chemical properties of individual compounds and their biological effects'. So it's (relatively) easy to change the structure – within the body, cholesterol can be converted into progesterone, which can be converted into cortisone or testosterone. By the 1930s, chemists had figured out ways of mimicking these bodily processes : 'with just a few chemical steps they were able to change male hormones into female ones and vice versa.'11 Sterols found in plants have a similar structure, and could be used as a starting material to produce hormones.
Percy Julian, an African-American research chemist, was a pioneer in the industrial-scale chemical synthesis of the human hormones from plant sterols, using soya beans. His work helped lay the foundation for the pharmaceutical industry's mass-production of cortisone and sex hormones. 12 Russell Marker, another US chemist, searched for plants that were high in sterols and worked with botanists to collect over 400 species for testing. They found that the wild Mexican yams (Dioscorea composita, locally known as barbasco) had the highest content of the desired chemical (diosgenin). Marker developed a system to convert diosgenin into progesterone, that could be used to synthesise sex hormones and corticosteroids. This work led to the establishment of the Mexico-based company Syntex in 1944, who went on to become global leaders in processing diosgenin for hormones up until the 1970s. Syntex depended on the mass extraction of yam tubers in the wild – labour undertaken by poorly paid Mexicans. 'By the 1960s more that 2 million women in the United States were using the pill and more than 100,000 Mexican peasants were gathering the raw material for its production'.13
Luiza Prado de O Martins explores the contradictions of the contraceptive pill – understood as a tool for female liberation, but produced at the cost of exploiting many gendered and racialized bodies, with early tests being carried out on Puerto Rican women. 'Population control has historically been used as a tool for domination: as an imperialist effort designed to secure the United States political influence over Latin America; or as part of eugenic policies geared towards the erasure of Native American, Latin and Black populations..'14 Drawing on Preciado's work, she shows how it has been used as a form of self-policing, to normalise and discipline the body. The design of the revolving circular packet became an 'edible panoption' 15 but these molecules have also been '(mis)used to articulate new ways of doing gender'.16
Breakthroughs in synthesising and mass-producing hormones from plants led to some of the most widely used and profitable drugs in history. The contraceptive pill, testosterone, cortisone, HRT drugs and anabolic steroids were to become some of the most ubiquitous drugs both over and under the counter (steroids for body-building are one of the most frequently used unprescribed drugs in the UK 17). These drugs help cure, balance, adjust, and ‘improve’ our bodies... they have been credited with sexual liberation and breakthroughs in medicine. They have also in different ways been used to discipline or normalise bodies, and like many pharmacuetical products were constructed from knowledge and material gathered through exploitation. The pharmacuetical industry stopped using yams decades ago, as wild plant populations plummeted and couldn't meet the demand, but soya beans are farmed on a massive scale and so far no-one has confirmed to me what goes into the lab to produce hormones and steroids now. These medicines are still material, and chemical messengers from other species continue to travel through our bodies (and those of farmed animals) and back out into the world – as Donna Harraway puts it, we are all 'awash with urine'.
1 Paul B Preciado, Testo Junkie, Feminist Press, New York, 2013, p167
3 Paul B Preciado, Testo Junkie
4 Rasmussen, N. (2002) “Steroids in arms: science, government, industry, and the hormones of the adrenal cortex in the United States, 1930–1950”. Medical History 46: 299-324.
6 Silvia Federici tracks the reasons for this suppression of knowledge in the context of the European witch-hunts and the origins of capitalism in Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body And Primitive Accumulation (AK Press, 2005)
8 Lara V. Marks, Sexual Chemistry - A History of the Contraceptive Pill (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2010), 61.
10 Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, p112
11 Lara V. Marks, Sexual Chemistry p 62
13 Gabriela Soto Laveaga, Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill
14 Luiza Prado de O. Martins - Pills, genders and design: Speculations on Queer Materialities (2018)
15 Paul B Preciado, Testo Junkie p191
16 Luiza Prado de O. Martins - Pills, genders and design: Speculations on Queer Materialities