Deeper Cut: The Hormonal Lovecraft

We soon found, however, that we were dealing with an entirely different order of phenomena, and that the secretion of the pancreas is normally called into play not by nervous channels at all, but by a chemical substance which is formed in the mucous membrane of the upper parts of the small intestine under the influence of acid, and is carried thence by the blood-stream to the gland-cells of the pancreas2

W. M. Bayliss and E. H. Starling, “The Mechanism of Pancreatic Secretion” (1902)

H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was born into a world without birth control pills, insulin for diabetics, anabolic steroids, hormone therapy for diseases such as cancer and thyroid disease; or hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women, intersex individuals, or transgender people. He would not, in fact, live to see many of these medical miracles carried into practice: endocrinology was in its infancy, the word “hormone” was not coined by Starling until 1905, and chemical synthesis of hormones would take decades to realize and become practical.

To a degree, hormones had their place in medicine long before the 1900s: anatomists had identified glands centuries before, and animal nd plant sources of hormones were used as part of traditional or scientific medicine. Yet it was not until Lovecraft’s lifetime that scientists began to understand the functionality of glands and their secretions, what those secretions were and how they worked. While we often focus on the electrical and mechanical marvels of the 20th century such as telephone, airplanes, and electric lightbulbs, the hormone revolution was no less earth-shattering in how it has ultimately transformed human society—in helping to manage disease, fertility, sexual characteristics, and growth disorders in unprecedented ways.

With the discovery of glandular secretions and hormones, supplemented by further discoveries and advancements in knowledge and potential utility of this information, came public awareness and interest, particularly in matters of sex. While not everyone could point to the pituitary gland or thyroid gland, at least fifty percent of the adult population could reliably locate the testes, and the knowledge that women had corresponding organs was also general knowledge. Early experiments with castration and transplantation of testes in animals such as Arnold Adolph Berthold’s 1849 experiments with roosters had rendered some remarkable effects…and some wondered if similar benefits could be achieved in humans.

The Gland Doctors

Xenotransplantation, the surgical attachment of non-human animal tissue to or into human bodies, gained interest in the 19th century. In 1889, at the age of 72, Dr. Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard published his findings that a hypodermic injection of extracts animal testicles had given him renewed sexual potency (Brown-Séquard). In the 1910s, Dr. Eugen Steinach experimented with testicular secretions in animals, observing the effects when injected into female guinea pigs, who obtained more noticeably masculine secondary characteristics and behaviors. Theorizing this could be applied to humans, in 1918 he performed the “Steinach procedure” (a partial vasectomy that would hopefully help the body retain testicular hormonal secretions) on a human being, and the reported positive results resulted in a flood of patients and much publicity (Dr. Steinach Coming To Make Old Young).

Thus glandular injections, as well as the Steinach operation (which renders an external secretion internal by making gonads wholly ductless), often cause complete changes in emotional life.

H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 20 Jan 1933, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 280

“Glandular injections” in this case might refer also to injections of glandular secretions to make up for deficiencies in the subject’s body. This was the case of Ewan Forbes, who was assigned female at birth but underwent injections of testosterone as an early form of treatment (see The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes by Zoë Playdon.

Where injections of hormones could achieve some real medical benefit, neither Brown-Séquard or Steinach’s procedures transplanting glandular tissue achieved the effects they claimed. However, the reported success and the demand for medical intervention to address health issues, especially sexual health and wellbeing, inspired more fantastic procedures and claims. The two most notorious “gland doctors” were Dr. Serge Voronoff and “Dr.” John R. Brinkley.

Voronoff’s early work involved the transplanting of testicles and other glands from animal to animal, and xenotransplantation of chimpanzee thyroid glands into humans suffering thyroid deficiencies. The procedure for which he gained wealth and fame was the xenotransplantation of chimpanzee testicular tissue (slices, not whole organs) into human beings; he also transplanted chimpanzee ovary tissue into women in menopause, and more exotic experiments (see David Hamilton’s The Monkey Gland Affair).

None of Voronoff’s patients experienced the promised increase in vigor or sexual potency, although many may have experienced a placebo effect. Yet the immense popularity of the procedure (whether performed by Voronoff or someone else) inspired others. One of these was John R. Brinkley, a conman and quack doctor whose specialty was transplanting goat glands—testicles and ovaries—to restore or enhance sexual function and cure disease. While this was even more medically dubious than Voronoff’s procedure (Brinkley’s medical diploma had come from a diploma mill), the claims gained enough fame and fortunate for Brinkley to continue to operate, sometimes running his own hospitals (Plan Hospital At Ensenada, see also Pope Brock’s Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam).

In these grey after-years, without the spontaneity of the of the occasion, I can’t get the same old mood. The old man has aged and dry’d up since good old 1927! Well–let’s think on the subject at our respective leisures, (if such exist) and maybe one of us will get an idea and go ahead with the goat-gland surgery.

H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 19 Jan 1931, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 281

Lovecraft was joking; he is comparing his inability to think of a comedic plot to follow up his story “Ibid” to sexual impotence.

The gland transplantation era would peak and fade during Lovecraft’s lifetime, and despite his quote to Moe above, there’s no evidence Lovecraft was ever interested in either procedure—but he was aware of them. This was accepted medical science that Lovecraft incorporated into his world view and philosophy, as when he would state:

The difference between good will and hate is very clear scientifically. These instincts are seen to be diverse in excitation, manner of operation, and effect—modern research shewing the one to be a product of hormones from such glands as the gonads and the pineal, while the other comes almost exclusively from adrenal hormones.

H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 3 Apr 1934, A Means to Freedom 2.728

Genuine medical advancements in identifying hormones and gland function and sensationalized claims of gland transplantation both entered into the public consciousness, not just as the butt of jokes but also inspiring fiction.

Gland Stories

The articles on serums & gland extracts have all sorts of fictional possibilities—some of which have been cleverly used already, while others await the hand of the capable expert.

H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 25 July 1935, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 612

Early science fiction stories in the pulps were often focused on gadgets such as robots, spaceships, and various rays of strange and unusual effects. Yet during the 1920s and 30s at least dozens, and possibly hundreds of “gland stories” emerged. These stories capitalized on the theories and claims of glands and hormones in the popular press and medical journals; while scientists and doctors (real or quacks) could make expansive claims about the potentials of glands, writers in the science fiction pulps could realize those fantastic claims, in stories like W. Alexander’s “The Anais Gland” (Amazing Stories Nov 1928), Capt. S. P. Meek’s “The Gland Murders” (Amazing Detective Jan 1930), Clare Winger Harris’ “The Ape Cycle” (Science Wonder Quarterly Spring 1930), Malcolm Alfred’s “The Gland Men of the Island” (Wonder Stories Jan 1931, also published as “The Ho-Ming Gland” Feb Amazing Stories 1933), Raymond A. Palmer’s “Three From The Test-Tube” (Wonder Stories Dec 1935), Ed Earl Repp’s “The Gland Superman” (Amazing Stories Oct 1938)…and a small story about the stimulation of the pituitary gland by H. P. Lovecraft called “From Beyond” (The Fantasy Fan Jun 1934).

As for the pineal gland—modern endocrinology has fairly well established its actual function in the human system…as a regulator of the chemical & biological changes attending adolescence & maturity. But surely the legends lose nothing in picturesqueness & imaginative value through being merely legends.

H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 24 Mar 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 412

While nothing in our normal experience is ever likely to call forth any additional senses, it is not impossible that experiments with the ductless glands might open up a fresh sensitivity or two—& then what impressions might not pour in?

H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 18 Nov 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 478-479

In the pulps, manipulations of the glands could achieve biological miracles: immortality, gigantism, the transformation of humans into apes and apes into humans, and other more obscure and imaginative possibilities. As its worst, glands became nothing more than a kind of phlebotinum, an excuse for any and all bizarre transformations or effects that the writer wished to achieve, the equivalent of red kryptonite in the Superman comics or a transporter malfunction on Star Trek. Yet at their best, gland stories represented with fair accuracy to the scientific knowledge of the day the possibilities that increased scientific knowledge and medical control of hormones offered.

Because this was essentially new technology, the technological abilities sometimes ran ahead of the social structures they would effect, and morality often lagged behind. All three tendencies tend to be exemplified in science fiction, where the results are often miraculous and the moral and ethical ramifications are still seen through the lens of the early 20th century. When Lovecraft waxed on about the possibility of hormones to improve life, for example, he wasn’t thinking of birth control or transgender people:

Wiggam, like Prof. J. B. S. Haldane, believes that much will be done in future toward the artificial development of Homo sapiens, but I doubt very much whether such development can ever reach more than a tiny fraction of the extremes they postulate. In the first place, the complexity of the laws governing organic growth is enormous—so enormous that the number of unknown factors must always remain hopelessly great. We can discover & apply a few biological principles—but the limit of effectiveness is soon reached. For example—despite all the advances in endocrinology & all the experiments in glandular rejuvenation, there is no such thing as a permanent or well-balanced staving-off of senescence & dissolution. And in the second place, the fact that human beings live by emotion & caprice rather than by reason will probably prevent the widespread application of any unified plan of eugenics.

H. P. Lovecraft to Natalie H. Wooley, 22 Nov 1934, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 297

In his letters, Lovecraft doesn’t touch directly on the implications of sex hormones specifically on sex and gender. During his life, the understanding of gender identity, and how they interacted with biological sex and sexual orientation was very different than today. There were a number of individuals that did not conform to their gender assigned at birth, and individuals that felt sexual attraction to members of their own gender, and how Lovecraft’s understanding of how this all worked was fairly minimal—psychologists and sexologists would use terms like urning and uranian to describe those whose biological sex did not match their observed sexual attraction, but often struggled with individuals who failed to fit neatly into defined gender behavior or roles.

In the pulps, the nexus of hormones and gender identity or sexuality sometimes bore odd fruit. Seabury Quinn’s “Strange Interval” (Weird Tales May 1936) involves a man captured by pirates who is castrated—a rather radical form of hormone therapy—and dressed in women’s clothes; as their body changes from the lack of testosterone, the character transitions mentally and physically into a woman and engages in a lesbian relationship with another woman. The character de-transitions by the end of the tale—mentally, at least; the physical removal of their gonads cannot be healed—but it is a crude example of how the basic ideas of hormonal changes to the body can affect identity. A more “scientific” example is Dr. David Keller’s “The Feminine Metamorphosis” (Science Wonder Stories Aug 1929), where an underground organization of women, tired of being discriminated against, use surgery and injections to pass as men and rule the world. The main flaw to the plan is that the transitioners sourced their hormones or tissues from Asian men infected with syphilis, and now suffer from the disease.

Keller and Quinn were both contemporaries of Lovecraft, and his peers at Weird Tales; neither can be said to have a progressive viewpoint toward women (even by the standards of the 1920s and 30s), and these stories are about as sexist as can be imagined. Lovecraft, when he finally wrote a gender transition story in “The Thing on the Doorstep” (written Aug 1933, published Weird Tales Jan 1937) used a transfer of personality rather than biological process or surgery to effect the change…yet even then, when Edward Pickman Derby’s friend sees the forced transition he describes it in biological terms, glands and all:

The face beside me was twisted almost unrecognisably for a moment, while through the whole body there passed a shivering motion—as if all the bones, organs, muscles, nerves, and glands were readjusting themselves to a radically different posture, set of stresses, and general personality.

Transitioning Into the 21st Century

The advances in scientific research into glands and hormones were paralleled by advancements in gender reassignment surgery, psychological understanding of gender dysphoria, and shifting legal and societal attitudes towards sex, gender, and orientation. While we do not normally think of H. P. Lovecraft and his pulp peers as being influenced by all these changes and scientific advancements—they were. This was their world, as much as Jim Crow, the Great War, and the Great Depression.

When readers today read stories like “The Thing on the Doorstep,” “Strange Interval,” and “The Feminine Metamorphosis,” they understand those stories through the syntax of a world where transgender rights, and often transgender people, are in danger. Over a century after the discovery of hormones, our societies still struggle with the ramifications of their use…but the conversation has changed. There is no question about whether insulin, steroids, or hormonal birth control are effective; the goat-gland doctors and monkey gland men are gone, and natural and synthetic hormones are now potent tools in the medical tool chest. The question of today is one of when and how those medical options may be exercised, and by whom.

When we see the often clumsy grappling with issues of gender and biological sex in these stories by Lovecraft, Quinn, and Keller it is a bit simplistic to say that these men were transphobic in the contemporary sense, if only because awareness of gender dysphoria and the possibilities of transitioning were as hypothetical as space travel and human cloning.

Transitioning was only in its medical infancy during the 20s and 30s; these men fumbled with new ideas, with no inkling of what the reality of hormone replacement therapy would look like—except possibly Keller, who worked as a doctor and a psychiatrist and wrote books on sexology. Of the three, Keller had the best grasp of the contemporary medical profession’s ideas regarding gender the scientific potential of surgery and hormone therapy at the time—but he focused not on the individual but on contemporary social concerns vis-a-vis “the war of the sexes” rather than gender dysphoria.

In their own historical context, it seems evident these men did not set out to be bigots toward a population which for all practical purposes barely existed yet. Their failure to imagine or understand that population is typical: readers might compare how pulp writers imagined flying cars and colonies on Mars but largely missed the smartphone and the internet. Failure to see the future does not excuse other or related prejudices (sexism, homophobia, etc.) as expressed in their fiction, but to judge them by the standards of present understanding of transgender issues is to miss the fact that those issues by and large didn’t exist in the popular consciousness yet.

Gland stories, and pulp stories of gender transition have to be seen as intimately tied together with and influenced by how science was changing during the early 20th century, presenting new facts and ideas for pulp writers like Lovecraft to explore. Often their approach was flawed, but just as the flaw in a gem may catch the eye, so too are the flaws in their stories fascinating in their own way. These stories are historical artifacts of a more primitive line of thought regarding medical science, gender, and transition as they were in the 1920s and 30s…and, hopefully, demonstrate how much our society has changed in the last hundred years, thanks to the discovery of hormones.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

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