(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)
The road to Biogenesis—plus BALCO, Lance Armstrong and whatever other sports doping scandal is breaking this week—began with dog and guinea pig balls.
Dr. Charles Edouard Brown-Sequard was one of the most active scientists of the late 1800s. He researched and practiced in five countries on three continents, made 60 trips across the Atlantic Ocean and wrote over 500 scholarly papers in disciplines ranging from neurology to endocrinology. He was, as Neurosurgery called him in 2008, "a skillful experimentalist."
One of those experiments involved crushed animal testicle extracts—specifically, the 72-year-old Brown-Sequard reported that repeatedly injecting himself with a potion that included dog and guinea pig extracts left him stronger, more energetic, able to urinate more forcefully and enjoying "a greater improvement with regard to the expulsion of fecal matters than in any other function."
While many modern scientists approach Brown-Sequard's claims of newfound youth with heavy skepticism, his experimentation with animal glands is considered to be the birth of modern endocrinology. (At one point, he reported "rejuvenated sexual prowess after eating extracts of monkey testicles." Do you have Low T?) Brown-Sequard marketed the results of his testicular experiments as the "Elixir of Life," and on August 12th, 1889, 32-year-old Pittsburgh Alleghenys pitcher James "Pud" Galvin received an experimental injection at the Western Pennsylvania Medical College, thus becoming the first known American athlete to dope—or at least the first to attempt to do so.
The next day, 126 years ago today, Galvin took the mound against the Boston Beaneaters. The future Hall of Fame player—and first 300-game winner in Major League Baseball history—pitched a gem, a dazzling five-hit shutout victory. As History.com reports:
"Galvin turned back the clock by pitching a 9-0 shutout against Boston. His fastball was sizzling, and he yielded just five scattered singles. Galvin's bat was full of vitality as well. A career .201 hitter, Galvin knocked in two runs with a fourth-inning double and plated another runner with a triple in the fifth inning. The Pittsburgh Dispatch reported that Galvin 'once more was a youngster full of fun, power and tricks.'"
Tricks indeed. Today, Galvin's behavior would immediately be classified as cheating, or at the very least extremely sketchy, akin to Ray Lewis using deer-antler spray. For the 1889 sporting press, however, it was simply a sign of Galvin's "resourcefulness" and Brown-Sequard's scientific skill. The Washington Post told any "doubting Thomases" that Galvin's performance against Boston was "the best proof yet furnished of the value of the discovery."
Ultimately, the "Elixir of Life" was proven to be nothing more than a medical fad, like many other potions and tonics of that time period. Still, Galvin, the Post and the 12,000-some physicians who distributed Brown-Sequard's concoction believed in its performance-enhancing effects. So it went during the early days of attempted sports doping. As John Hoberman wrote in his 1992 book Mortal Engines: The Science of Performance and the Dehumanization of Sport, athletic drugs of choice in the 1920s and 1930s included such absurdities as glucose, ultraviolet light, nitroglycerine and cocaine.
"It was junk," Hoberman told the Post's Paul Farhi in 2009 about the "Elixir of Life." "It was not effective. But the fact that people wanted to believe it worked is the same as today. It's not as if the mind-set of elite athletes has undergone a sea change in the past 100 years. It's just that effective drugs weren't available."
Of course, effective performance-enhancers are now plentiful. Ironically enough, their effectiveness has helped transform the Post's giddy enthusiasm into suspicion, taboo and moral panic, which in turn has produced an informational fog that echoes the one around Brown-Sequard's elixir. Drug companies refuse to participate in clinical studies of steroids in athletes to avoid the perception that they're contributing to cheating in sports, and athletes are reluctant to submit to studies for the suspicions they might generate. Dr. Lawrence Golding, one of the first doctors to study the use of steroids and amphetamines by athletes, said in 1973 that research had concluded steroids help build size and strength. "But is it lean body muscle they're putting on?" Golding asked.
Thanks to the environment of secrecy required by the zero tolerance efforts of the World Anti-Doping Agency and other groups devoted to the eradication of PEDs, we still don't know the full answer. Nor have we done much-needed studies on the long-term effects of steroids and other drugs. We know PEDs can work; we know they can be very bad for one's health; between those poles, there is much to discover. At this point, pretty much the only thing we know for sure is that no matter what WADA or similar policing organizations do, athletes remain imbued with the same spirit that took Galvin to Western Pennsylvania Medical College to get dog and guinea pig testicle extract injected into his arm. As long as there are competitions to win, athletes will continue searching for the Elixir of Life, obstacles be damned.