Grafting ape testicles onto old men was the rage in 1920. Some 300 patients of the Russian doctor Serge Voronoff underwent this costly surgery, looking for “rejuvenation.”
Another celebrity physician of the era, Eugen Steinach of Austria, promised to restore youthful vigor to geezers by performing vasectomies. Sigmund Freud was reputed to have been one of his patients; poet William Butler Yeats got “Steinached” in 1934 and, by all accounts, was a changed man.
Such fascinating tidbits abound in “Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jonathan Weiner. Weiner takes us on an extraordinary ride through the ages, touching on science, philosophy, literature and mythology, to explore the centuries-old human quest for longevity.
Dominating the tale is a brilliant, fringy Brit, Aubrey David Nicholas Jasper de Grey, a Cambridge-educated researcher who sports a beard as long as his name and lubricates his theories on curing the disease of aging with many pints of ale.
Baby boomer de Grey plans to have his own head frozen, just in case the advances he envisions that will enable us all to live longer than Methuselah, the Bible’s oldest man at 969, don’t arrive within his own lifetime.
During the Stone Age, the average life expectancy was probably around 20, Weiner writes. By the Renaissance, people were living to the ripe old age of 33, and by 1900, they were reaching 47 in the most developed countries.
Babies born in such regions at the end of the 20th century could expect to live about 76 years, gaining almost 30 years -- “or about as much time as our species had gained before in the whole struggle of existence.”
The oldest humans are now living to about 120, and most gerontologists think another major breakthrough is needed to extend our life spans dramatically.
While Weiner doesn’t focus on the booming anti-aging business or give hot stock tips, he does touch on some promising new research that may result in new drugs and therapies to prolong human life without severe calorie restriction -- a proven method to extend life spans. Resveratrol, a compound found in grape skins -- and red wine -- switches on a class of proteins called sirtuins that may prevent gene mutations that normally occur in the messy process of living and may also repair DNA damage that does occur.
Rapamycin, an antibiotic discovered in soil-dwelling microbes from Easter Island, is making lab mice friskier. Females who got the drug lived 38 percent longer than those who did not, Weiner reports.
The author is as adept at parsing the ancient epic of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian hero who sought the secret of immortality, as he is at explaining the inner workings of mitochondria, the cell’s tiny energy powerhouses.
And he raises the right questions -- at least some of them. Why do humans age? Is the 1,000-year life span, even immortality, a real possibility, and if so, is that a good thing? Wouldn’t we get really bored?
While I wish he addressed the question of what it would mean to have 500-year-olds bankrupting the Social Security system, or delved further into whether anyone would have children anymore, I’m glad Weiner touches briefly on the issue of social equity.
“How would our world of haves and have-nots go on spinning if the haves lived on for a thousand years while the children of have-nots went right on dying hungry at the age of five?” he asks. “And what would happen to the rest of the living world?”
“Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality” is published by Ecco (310 pages, $27.99). To buy this book, click here.
(Robin D. Schatz is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)