Anabolic steroids and the pill from offals

The first discoveries of sexual
hormones were found in the
waste products of abattoirs.
Photo: Håkan Tunón.

Oestrone was isolated in 1929 – the first sexual hormone – from the urine of pregnant women. Later the more potent oestrogen, oestradiol, was isolated from the ovaries of sows. Only 12 mg oestradiol was produced from 4 tons of ovaries. Both are female hormones and the discovery led to a more intensive search for more sexual hormones.

In 1931, 15 mg of androsterone was isolated from 15,000 litres of urine from men. Then testosterone was refined – the most important male sexual hormone – from the testicles of bulls.

Another steroid hormone, progesterone, was found from pregnant women, and became the basis for the development of the contraceptive pill which tricks the body, by signals to the brain, into believing that it is pregnant, which then prevents ovulation.

But it was first in the 1940’s, with the discovery that you could produce steroids semi-synthetically from plant sterols, that there was a commercial use for steroids. Adrenal steroids or corticosteroids were identified and they began to be used for the treatment of rheumatism, asthma and other inflammatory illnesses. Even children with growth defects could be treated with sexual hormones to make them grow normally and this led to the development of anabolic steroids. Synthetically produced testosterones make the body’s muscles grow faster and they are now illegally used as dope in sports.

At the end of the 19th century, another hormone was refined which was not a steroid. It was a substance from the adrenal glands that was named adrenalin. It soon became obvious that the substance had powerful medicinal effects. It increased the pulse and the blood pressure. When it was learnt how to synthesize it, it could be used in health care. Nowadays it is used to get the heart beating again after cardiac arrest. By working with the structure of the formula, other drugs could soon be produced which, today, are used for colds and asthma. Some similar substances had a powerful effect on the brain and produced a hallucinogenic intoxication. One of these substances was amphetamine and some of the others go under the generic name ecstasy.

Suggested Reading:
Hoberman, J. M. och Yesalis, C. E. 1995. The History of Synthetic Testosterone. Scientific American. Feb, 1995, pp 60-65.

Last modified: 2021-06-21