This was supposed to be Weird Science and Classic Science Friday. Now it is still weird science and classic science Friday, it’s just redux. This is because I lost the whole post due to problems switching between computers, and now I have to rewrite the whole thing. Furthermore, the other computer that I’m currently stuck on cannot run Picasa, so we’re stuck without pictures as well. It’s ghetto-fabulous.
Also, as a note, and as some of you may be able to tell due to my sharp decrease in technology, I am headed out of the country to the great Beyond (as in, beyond my computer, who knows if I will make it back alive!!) for the next ten days. We all need a science vacation, yes?
And so here it goes: Weird Science: REDUX
Nothing like going to the classics to find some weird science! For this weird science Friday, I want to take you back. Back to a time before estrogen and testosterone. Back to a time when people were still trying to figure out was these “hormones” were. Back to when the grass was green, men had male hormone, women had female hormone, and roosters were castrated in the service of science.
Oh yes, I did say castrated. Many people I’ve talked to these days don’t even know what a capon is, but suffice it to say that it is a rooster who is now less than a rooster. The average rooster is caponized at 20-60 days post-hatching, when the testicles are removed. The result is a male bird that is non-aggressive, even playing surrogate to a female’s chicks, and which also, incidentally, has lovely, tender, high fat flesh that makes for really good gourmet (in some places. Caponization is banned in the UK for reasons of animal welfare, though it is still legal in the US and Canada).
So how do you tell a capon? Well, I suppose you could look under the tail feathers (though most birds are really not much on external genitalia), but the easiest way is to look at the bird’s comb. As I’m sure you’ve seen, roosters have large, floppy combs, which are well supplied with blood and bright red. Capon’s combs, however, stop growing once the birds testicles are removed (as the gonadal hormones are responsible for external sex characteristics produced during puberty), and they have a short, rounded comb.
Who cares about a capon’s comb? In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scientists began to study the effects of certain organs and bodily secretions on external sex characteristics. The first person to do this was Arnold Adolf Berthold, a pioneer in endocrinology, who studies the transferring of testicles in roosters (an 1848 paper that I am DYING to get my hands on. I haven’t had any luck, but if anyone else has, care to help me out??). He found that, by transferring the testicles of adult roosters into adult capons, he could restore mating behavior, aggression, and the redness and fullness of the capon comb. He reasoned that the gonads must be responsible for the secondary sex characteristics of the rooster. And suddenly capons became a hot item among endocrinologists.
It’s not easy to quantify mating behavior. There’s a lot of individual variation. Even some full roosters are not as aggressive as others, and some don’t chase hen tail as enthusiastically. But the comb is readily identifiable, can be measured quickly and non-invasively, and is generally a good standard of “male hormone” measures in the capon.
So after Berthold’s paper on capons came out in 1848, everyone wanted to try transferring gonads in capons. The “secreted substance” that scientists hypothesized was coming from the gonads even became known as “capon comb growth-promoting substance”, and the amount could be measured in “capon comb growth units” (CCGU), which was the unit which, when divided into 8 portions and given 2 times per day for 4 days, caused an increase in comb surface of more than 15 %. Interestingly, this standard was partially invented by Freud during his work in 1932, though it can also be attributed to Gradstein.
By 1937, injecting capons with rooster substances was old hat. In this study by Dingemanse, the scientists set out to measure “capon comb growth-promoting substances” in a large population of humans. How did they get this hormone? Truly massive quantities of…urine. The original study on human urine and capon comb growth promoting substance was done by Callow in 1936, who apparently collected daily urine from a police barracks to determine amounts of hormone. This study went for a wider population, and was the first study to look at amounts of the hormone in human women as well as men, and in children as well as adults.
Most of the paper involves the extraction of the hormone from the urine (alkaline vs acidic conditions, using it fresh vs letting it ripen a few days), but it also shows the capon growth units found in different groups of humans. Unfortunately they do not say how they determined how many units were in each sample, though they do refer to limits of detection, which is a pity, because I was picturing a huge barnyard full of capons, all measured carefully every day for comb growth.
What they found was that men on average produced about 40 units of growth substance (which was presumed to be “male hormone”) per liter, and that this rate of excretion continues well into old age, though with an increase in individual variability. In their studies of young boys, they found that they produce about 15 units per liter. But the shocking finding was in women. They found that average women produced just as much “male hormone” as men! Not only that, these levels continued well into menopause. Levels were detectable at 5 units in young girls, and even present (though lower than average) in pregnant women and in women who had had their ovaries removed. Finally, they found that while men exhibited normal levels of hormone at all times, women exhibited a cyclic variation, with the highest levels just after the menstrual cycle.
This finding was stunning. No one thought that human women had “male hormones”. It was thought that men had male hormones, women had female hormones, and that was what determined sex. The idea that male hormones were present and active in females produced a huge amount of study into hormones with sexual activity, which not only has increased our knowledge of the human body and of the hormones within it, but has had far-reaching effects on perceptions of sexuality and gender in society.
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