Was Eugene Sandow on Gear?

What this article is all about: we take a look at the history of performance-enhancing drug use in sports, question whether early bodybuilders were “on anything”, and the role a Mauritian scientist played in all this. 

I was wrong in always thinking that the use of steroids in sports, notably in bodybuilding, started slightly before the “Dianabol era” in the late 50s.

As the popular story goes, Dr. Ziegler of the US Olympic team heard about the Soviet camp’s drug use and then came up with the idea Dianabol as a “countermeasure” to the rival’s drug regimen. 

However, when I actually dug into the literature I found reports that since the 1940s steroids in the form of Testosterone Propionate and methyltestosterone were already in circulation.

The 1945 book “The Male Hormone” by Paul de Kruif sang praises about the muscle-building properties the above two drugs, which tells us that these compounds were already quite popular. 

This kind of information wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by bodybuilders, most certainly. 

The 1945 book by science writer Paul De Kruif

If we go a little deeper in history, we will find that in 1935 scientists had already discovered testosterone in testicular extracts.

The chemical structure of testosterone was elicidated the same year. Pharmaceutical giants CIBA and Schering then synthesized them. It is good to know that the two teams shared the 1939 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this remarkable work.

These pharma giants already saw the business potential of testosterone, especially as a means to fight muscle wasting in critically ill populations. 

Before the discovery of testosterone, University of Chicago scientists Fred Koch and McGee isolated 20mg of a “substance” from 40 lbs of bull testicles in 1927. This substance was able to confer performance enhancing and re-masculinising benefits in castrated animals.

The pre-synthetic testerone era: performance-enhancing “substance” in bull testicles

The discovery that the testes secreted an “unknown substance” into the bloodstream was credited to German scientist Arnold Berthold. This happened in 1849, a full 78 years before the discovery that this “unknown substance” was in fact testosterone. 

However, the first person who got the idea of preparing a “testicular extract” for testing on humans was a Mauritian scientist. This happened in around 1889.

Professor Charles-Edouard Brown-Séquard (1817-1894): the man who fathered it all in this field.

Mauritian physiologist Professeur Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard, the leading neurologist of his time and the father of modern-day endocrinology made a concentrated extract derived from guinea pig and dog testicles.

He showed that injecting this extract could enhance physical strength and intellectual capacity in humans.

The amazing effects that he observed were reported in 1889 at the Société de Biologie in Paris.

This extract was known among scientists as the Brown-Séquard Elixir.

This elixir was probably the first hormonal supplement known to man and a Mauritian invented it!

The reason for my excitement about the scientist being a Mauritian? Simply because I was born and raised in Mauritius. He went to high school at Royal College. I graduated from Royal College some 180 years later 🙂 

Did any sportsperson test the elixir?.

The preparations of Brown-Séquard intrigued Major League Baseball player Pud Galvin. The latter wondered if injections of the elixir would enhance his baseball performance. Thus, Galvin became the first known athlete to inject a steroid-based product when he became a regular user of the Brown-Séquard Elixir.

Galvin, the first known user of a steroid-based product in sports. 100 years before the doping scandal on baseball broke!

Were there “users” in bodybuilding back then?

We cannot say for sure whether Eugene Sandow used bull testicle extracts in his quest for strength and muscle size. But we know human nature very well. Humans, especially athletes, are always willing to try something that gives them the edge on their competitors.

Arnold once said that he would eat a pound of shit if it gave him one pound of muscle.

Would Sandow, who was active in the 1890s have taken testicular extracts in order to help him in his strength feats?  Did Bobby Pandour, who sported a tremendous build in the early 1900s also use? I don’t have an answer to these questions.

Eugen Sandow abdominal and arm pose | The Index

One can only speculate.

As I have probably triggered the interest of my countrymen about Prof. Brown-Séquard, I invite you to read more about this illustrious scientist in my next article.

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Medical disclaimer
The information presented on this website is intended for adults 18 or over. Its aim is purely educational and does not constitute medical advice. Please consult a medical or health professional before you begin any program related to exercise, nutrition, or supplementation especially if you have a medical condition. If you consume any product mentioned on our site, you do so on your own free will, and you knowingly and voluntarily accept the risks.  © 2020. Veeraj Goyaram

About the author

Veeraj Goyaram, MSc Med (Exercise/ Nutr. Science)

My name is Veeraj Goyaram. I am a full time supplements guy and make my living in the world of nutritional supplements.

I am a nutritional product scientist by profession, meaning I create innovative nutritional supplements in the lab (food technology side) based on what I know about the human body and nutrients that affect it.

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  • Great article Veeraj … thanks so much for this awesome history lesson! Yes, knowing human nature, especially in athletes, I would say that if Sandow had access to muscle building substances he would have taken them. I began bodybuilding in 1968, so one of my mentors was Arnold, and he definitely was on PEDs, even though lots of lifters nowadays think the Golden Era guys were natural. In the 1970s, I took dianabol tablets and depotestosterone injections for a very short period of time (and I was a little guy compared to Arnold or Bill Pearl. Athletes always are looking for the edge, and PEDs are often too inviting to many of them to avoid.

    • Hello Steve,
      Happy to receive your comment. Thanks for sharing your experience. I totally love your YouTube channel and will follow you there. Great video on Athlean vs Doug Brignole, btw.

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