Old cures were just a croc

Special to The Times

Nuts, crocodiles and witch trials may seem to have little to do with Viagra -- but at one time or another, they’ve all been employed against erectile dysfunction.

For centuries, doctors struggled to pinpoint the causes of male impotence, blaming such factors as stress, diet, the wrath of deities and unattractive women. Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates attributed impotence to horseback riding; one of his contemporaries placed the blame on childhood trauma; Egyptians to evil spells.

The ancients also left behind an imaginative array of remedies: snacks of almonds, pistachios, dates, currant juice and bird eggs in Persia; a mix of sesame, lentils, rice and sugar cane juice in ancient India -- or goat testicles boiled in milk or butter and boiled alligator testes rubbed on the feet. The Egyptians were more direct, smearing remedies (such as crocodile hearts and wood oil) directly on the penis.


In the Islamic empire, impotence was sometimes blamed on an imbalance in the four fluids, or humors, thought to course through the body. Doctors advised men to avoid sex after meals, in the bathroom and with old or unappealing partners. In medieval Europe, impotent men believed they were under spells cast by witches, but also blamed their wives. Impotence was grounds for divorce.

In the Victorian era, many thought impotence was due to a depletion of sperm. Doctors cautioned against masturbation (a “waste” of sperm) and prescribed quinine, opium, digitalis and bleeding, to no avail.

In the late 1800s, French professor of medicine Charles Edouard Brown-Sequard proposed that injections of animal sperm might restore vitality. He tested the theory by injecting himself with an extract of dog and guinea pig testicles. His colleagues, who agreed the professor looked good for a man of 72, agreed to test the extracts on their patients. Soon the treatment, organotherapy, was all the rage.

Starting in the late 1910s, a few doctors went a step further, deciding to transplant whole testicles. In France, Serge Voronoff transplanted monkey testicles into the nether regions of more than 1,000 old men. In Kansas, John Brinkley ran a hospital that specialized in grafting goat testicles onto patients. At a California prison, Leo Stanley gave older inmates testicles of younger, executed prisoners.

Although many men claimed to feel rejuvenated by their testicular shots and transplants, few recovered their virility, and researchers continued their search. In the 1930s doctors experimented with surgical adjustment of penile muscles. In the 1940s and 1950s, they tried implants, inspired by the penile bones many animals have.

In the 1960s, an effective option finally arrived. A Georgia tire serviceman began work on a vacuum pump to treat his own impotence, which was ultimately approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1982.


The pump appeared just as several researchers began to identify drug treatments for impotence, albeit few with the showmanship exhibited by British doctor Giles Brindley. At a 1983 urology meeting, Brindley injected himself with a drug, phentolamine -- then took the stage, dropped his pants and shared his erection with his colleagues.

Brindley injected 33 drugs in his penis before finding one that worked, which may have rendered him slightly envious of the discoverers of Viagra. British researchers Ian Osterloh and Gill Samuels were developing a drug to improve blood flow to the heart when they realized that the drug, sildenafil citrate, was much more effective at improving blood flow to the penis -- and causing erections.

In Viagra’s first month on the market, doctors wrote well over 500,000 prescriptions. Considering men’s history of options -- crocodile hearts, prayer, testicular shots and grafts -- perhaps the blue pill’s lasting popularity should come as no surprise.