Aging Research in the Late Nineteenth to Early Twentieth Century
Even though the origins of the pursuit of healthy longevity can be traced back to ancient times, the onset of the modern development of aging research and therapy can be observed in the period toward the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, mainly in Europe. In this period of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, the scientific field of gerontology and the medical field of geriatrics became established. Sometimes this period is described by the cultural-historical French term “fin-de-siècle” signifying the “end of a century” or the “end of an epoch.”
The origins of research and care of the aged are ancient. The prolongation of healthy life and rejuvenation were pursued by alchemy and gerocomia since antiquity through the Middle Ages. Literary and scholarly examples of the pursuit of longevity exist since the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and the Egyptian medical papyri, through the teachings of adepts of Taoism in China, Ayurveda practitioners in India, alchemists in the medieval Middle East and Europe, to the early modern period represented by hygienists such as Luigi Cornaro, Johann Cohausen, and Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland and philosophers such as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Benjamin Franklin, and Nicolas Condorcet (Gruman 1966).
However, the beginning of the true (or late) modern period in the care and research of the aged can be traced to the end of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century, sometimes called the “fin-de-siècle” period, denoted in French as the “end of a century” or the “end of an epoch” and characterized by the rise of scientific optimism and therapeutic activism, fostering the striving for healthy longevity (Stambler 2014). These developments were also contemporary and resonant with the philosophical and cultural movement of “modernism” of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century.
By the end of the nineteenth century and in the first quarter of the twentieth century, a notable epicenter of the research and care of the aged was in France. This is where the medical specialty of médecine de vieillards (medicine for the aged) was established. In the nineteenth century, major contributions to the study of aging were made by French pathologists (Thane 2001). Working in the Parisian hospices for the elderly – the Salpêtrière for women and the Bicêtre for men – Charles-Louis Durand-Fardel (1815–1899) and Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893) and their followers carefully investigated the pathological tissue changes in old age: changes of the lungs, the brain, and the blood vessels (Stearns 1976). This work was summarized in treatises, such as Durand-Fardel’s Traité clinique et pratique des maladies des vieillards (Clinical and practical treatise on the diseases of the aged, 1854) and Charcot’s Leçons sur les maladies des vieillards et les maladies chroniques (Clinical Lectures on Senile and Chronic Diseases, 1868). Some of the notable French physicians working in “medicine for the aged” following Durand-Fardel and Charcot were Henri Cazalis (1840–1909), who coined the maxim “the man is as old as his arteries,” Jules Boy-Teissier (1858–1908), and Yves Delage (1854–1920). Some hygienic measures were suggested by the authors to alleviate the suffering of the aged (such as Charcot’s baths). Even though the mid-nineteenth-century medicine for the aged was quite limited in its means of combating degenerative senescence and achieving healthy longevity, the work of the French physicians laid the foundations for the understanding of the pathology and physiology of senescence and outlined measures of intervention.
Around the mid-nineteenth century, further significant advances were also made by French biologists and physicians in the theoretical conceptualization of aging and the possibility of extending healthy longevity. Thus, one of the most prominent French researchers of longevity of the mid-nineteenth century, the physician Marie-Jean-Pierre Flourens (1794–1867), asserted that the duration of growth multiplied a certain number of times determines the ordinary and extreme duration of life (the latter was estimated at 150 years) (Flourens 1855). One of the first modern scientific theories of aging was proposed by Édouard Robin of the French Academy of Sciences in 1853, who posited that aging is due to body “mineralization” or accumulation of “alkaline residues,” “calcification,” or “ossification.” Robin’s theory considered lactic acid and “vegetable acids” as possible means to dissolve the “mineral matters” and thus prolong life (Robin 1854).
Perhaps an even more substantial impetus was given by the therapeutic activist approach, advanced by Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) and Claude Bernard (1813–1878). This approach arguably shaped the emergence of the modern science of aging and longevity in fin-de-siècle France. Thus, the foremost researcher of aging and longevity at the turn of the twentieth century, the Nobel Prize winning biologist and the author of the concept of “gerontology” Elie Metchnikoff (1845–1916), was Pasteur’s protégé and député at Institut Pasteur. Another crucial contemporary proponent of longevity and aging therapy, Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard (1817–1894), the president of the French Biological Society, one of the founders of modern endocrinology and the inventor of rejuvenative hormone replacement therapy, was Claude Bernard’s pupil and successor at Collège de France.
Brown-Séquard suggested that through the supplementation of deficient hormones, bodily equilibrium can be restored, youth returned, and life prolonged. In his seminal experiment of 1889 with self-injections of animal sex gland extracts (from dogs and guinea pigs), Brown-Séquard reported mental and physical reinvigorating effects (Brown-Séquard 1889). Though the effects proved to be short-lasting and widely disputed at that time, these were arguably the first scientific attempts at hormone replacement therapy for rejuvenation, introducing longevity and rejuvenation research as an integral part of scientific discourse and in fact establishing the field of therapeutic endocrinology.
Another contemporary founder of modern aging and longevity science, Elie Metchnikoff, formulated a pioneering and highly influential scientific theory of aging, based on histological observations (c. 1900) (Stambler 2015, 2017). According to this theory, the body was divided into “noble” or “functional” elements (mainly the parenchymal tissues, such as the heart and the brain) and “primitive” or “harmful” elements (such as the “devouring phagocytes” and intoxicating putrefactive microflora). The former needed to be strengthened or replenished, the latter destroyed or attenuated. Thus, the body was seen as in a constant need of balancing between the agents of restoration and destruction. Based on this theory, several practical methods were suggested by Metchnikoff to attenuate the “harmful elements,” strengthen the “noble elements,” and reestablish the balance, among them small doses of stimulating cytotoxic sera (to strengthen parenchymal tissues or “the noble elements”) and probiotic diets (to attenuate the destructive and toxic intestinal microflora or “the harmful elements”) (Metchnikoff 1903). These suggestions arguably laid the foundation for the fields of systemic immunotherapy and microbiome studies. Generally, the works of Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard and Elie Metchnikoff can be seen as foundational for the emerging modern field of scientific biogerontology in the fin-de-siècle period.
The studies of aging took place across Europe, though with a notable concentration in France. Yet, at the turn of the twentieth century, another prominent epicenter of this research was in the United States. The works of the early twentieth-century American physicians – Dr. Ignatz Leo Nascher (1863–1944, born in Vienna and brought to New York as an infant), Dr. Malford Wilcox Thewlis (1889–1956), and Dr. Francis Everett Townsend (1867–1960) – set the foundations for clinical geriatrics. In these authors too, the possibility of improving healthy longevity was affirmed, and extensive further basic and clinical research was proposed as a first precondition to achieve this goal. In the writings of the founder of geriatrics (and the author of the term “geriatrics” c. 1909), Ignatz Leo Nascher, the desire to extend healthy life for the aged was strong. Nascher believed that “as a humanitarian it is [the physician’s] duty to prolong life as long as there is life and to relieve distress wherever he may find it” (Nascher 1914). Interestingly, Nascher conceded the prevalence of European research on aging and longevity at that time, “in this direction the French and German investigators are far ahead of their American confreres” yet expressed the hope for a stronger development in the United States, which came true. Further, the studies of calorie restriction as a means toward prolongation of life by Clive Maine McCay (1898–1967) of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, strengthened the traditional hygienic relation between moderate nutrition and healthy longevity (McCay 1935). Nascher, McCay, and several other early twentieth-century American longevity researchers, such as Charles Manning Child (1869–1954) (Child 1915), Jacques Loeb (1859–1924) (Loeb 1913), Alexis Carrel (1873–1944) (Carrel 1935), Raymond Pearl (1879–1941) (Pearl 1922), and others, were extremely cautious regarding the immediate prospects for extending longevity. Yet, they believed that with a more profound understanding of the mechanisms of aging, potential rejuvenative and life-extending means might be found. Thus, the fin-de-siècle period, in Europe and the United States, was foundational for the scientific pursuit of healthy longevity, via advancing biomedical science and medical science-based therapy.
Summary and Future Directions of Research
The critical impact of the late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century aging and longevity research on contemporary knowledge needs to be more strongly recognized and studied by the contemporary academic community, to create a sense of historical continuation. At the same time, there is a need to appreciate and find explanations for the enormous strides made by aging and longevity science in just about 100 years since its inception in the fin-de-siècle period. Thus the study of the early history of modern aging and longevity science may not only nourish curiosity but may be instructive for the future accelerated development of aging and longevity therapies.
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