1939: A Groundbreaking Year in the History of Testosterone

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A Brief History

In 1939, German scientist Adolf Friedrich Johann Butenandt won the Noble Prize in Chemistry for his work on sex hormones, while Croatian-Swiss scientist Leopold Ruzicka co-won for his work on polymethylenes and higher terpenes. Both men had previously and independently partially synthesized testosterone from a cholesterol base.

Digging Deeper

Testosterone is the primary male sexual hormone in humans and is also what is called an anabolic steroid, an androgen that helps males build the heavier muscular and skeletal body mass that differentiates men from women. Testosterone keeps men healthy and strong, prevents osteoporosis and contributes to male secondary sex characteristics. A lack of proper levels of testosterone results in weakness and frailty in men. Testosterone is produced in men and other male mammals in the testes, while women produce lesser amounts of the hormone in their ovaries. A natural decrease in testosterone production in males results in the common signs of aging, with decreasing muscle mass, energy and strength, as well as decreased libido. Testosterone replacement therapy is often prescribed by doctors for men with decreased levels of testosterone. Women are sometimes prescribed testosterone when being treated for certain illnesses such as breast cancer.

A vial of Depo-Testosterone (testosterone cypionate in oil) for intramuscular injection.

Testosterone is responsible for “virilization” in men, that is, the differences between the male and female genders, such as muscle mass, strength and secondary sex characteristics such as body hair, bone structure, deeper voice, sex drive, and energy. Testosterone also has anabolic effects, those chemical-biological processes that concern the building of body structures such as muscles and bone, as well as the building of bone density. The androgenic effects of testosterone include the maturation of sexual organs during fetal development and into puberty and is necessary for the production of sperm. Sexual activity increases testosterone production in men and to a lesser extent, also in women! (Sexual orgasm seems to be the key to a spike in testosterone levels.)

Interestingly, testosterone also has an effect on the way the male brain develops differently than that of the female brain, including the male brain being larger and having 15% more myelinated fiber length. Testosterone in the brain makes for a higher level of risk taking and daring, and also prevents the decrease in cognitive ability usually seen as people age. Maintaining higher levels of testosterone may help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Testosterone metabolism in humans. Conjugation (sulfation and glucuronidation) occurs both with testosterone and with all of the other steroids that have one or more available hydroxyl (-OH) groups in this diagram.

Early research in the area of testicular action pre-dated the discovery of testosterone, and in the early 19th Century researchers found healthy testes were vital to the well being of farm animals in normal sexual development. Research continued into the 20th Century with more experiments. Extracts from animal testicles were experimented with injections in other animals and even humans, and results showed a temporary increase in “rejuvenation.” Castrated roosters injected with testicular extract were found to be “re-masculinized.” The implication were obvious that something in the testes was making people and animals “more masculine,” that is, bigger, stronger, more virile and aggressive.

By the 1930’s a Dutch team of scientists finally isolated the hormone testosterone. Once scientists understood what testosterone was and what it consisted of, synthesis of the hormone was the next step in science of testosterone, something first achieved in 1935. As noted above, German scientist Adolf Friedrich Johann Butenandt won the Noble Prize in Chemistry for his work on sex hormones, while Croatian-Swiss scientist Leopold Ruzicka co-won for his work on polymethylenes and higher terpenes, both men having done extensive research into the synthesis of testosterone.  The research into testosterone and especially the synthesis of the hormone and ways to encourage the human body to produce increasing amounts of the hormone continued through the 1950’s.

Nobel Prize winner, Leopold Ruzicka of Ciba, a pharmaceutical industry giant that synthesized testosterone.

Despite common reports that the German military used steroids (testosterone) to make their soldiers stronger, faster, and with better endurance during World War II, little evidence exists that such a program existed. The Soviet military has also been suspected of experimenting with testosterone and other steroid treatment to enhance the physical performance of soldiers, and of course the use of testosterone to grossly increase muscle mass in body builders is now well known. Increased levels of testosterone are associated with enhanced physical athletic performance, and many prominent athletes have been found to have used such hormones to take their bodies and their performance to much higher levels.

Testosterone injections and treatments are limited to only being prescribed and administered by proper medical authorities, while other products intended to boost natural male testosterone production and to provide the chemical building blocks of testosterone are also commonly used by athletes and others seeking to enhance physical performance or well being.

Ball-and-stick model of the testosterone molecule, an anabolic steroid and the main hormone responsible for the growth of male primary and secondary sex characteristics in humans.

Questions for Students (and others): Did you know females produce a small quantity of testosterone? Have you ever had your testosterone level checked by a lab? Let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Epstein, Randi. Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything. HighBridge, 2018.

Morgantaler, Abraham. Testosterone for Life: Recharge Your Vitality, Sex Drive, Muscle Mass, and Overall Health.  McGraw-Hill Education, 2008.

Vergel, Nelson. Testosterone:: A Man’s Guide. Milestones Publishing, 2013.

The featured image in this article, a photograph from July 1935 of members of the Second International Congress on the Standardization of Sex Hormones at London School of Hygiene, comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Refer to Wellcome blog post (archive).  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.