The secrets of secretions

Dr. Randi Hutter Epstein discusses her new book about the history of hormones, and why it’s both a story of amazing advancements by brilliant scientists, and crazy claims by hacks and charlatans

  • Dr. Randi Hutter Epstein. Photo: Nina Subin

Hormones. Just over a century ago, little was known about these tongue-twisting chemicals. Now oxytocin, estrogen and testosterone roll off the tongue and into daily conversation. Their basic functions — regulating fighting or fleeing, puberty and sex, for instance, are common knowledge, but exactly how hormones work, and the extent of their influence, remains a mystery to many.

In “Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything,” author Randi Hutter Epstein shares the human stories behind these fascinating secretions. Epstein, a medical writer, lecturer at Yale University, Writer in Residence at Yale Medical School, and an adjunct at the Columbia School of Journalism, spoke to Straus News about why hormones are like our internal Wi-Fi, the women who made remarkable discoveries about these chemical messengers, and why no one goes hungry on the Upper West Side.

How did you become interested in the history of hormones in the first place?

My first book was called “Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.” So while I was doing that book I started looking into hormones because our hormones change, and it takes hormones to make a baby. As I started looking into the history of hormones, which was tangential to the first book, I realized that starting at the turn of the twentieth century, when it comes to hormones, it’s been over a century of amazing advances but also ridiculous claims. And while those outrageous claims make for funny and wacky stories, it also means what can we learn [from those stories]...I can’t believe we were peddling some of this stuff in the 1920s — some of the charlatans — but as we all know, history repeats itself. So a lot of what I found in the 1920s in terms of cures for libido, and people wanting certainty, and people promoting hormone cures to make you feel balanced, it was very similar, different remedies but very similar ideas, to what’s going on today.

You manage to seamlessly weave the nitty-gritty science in with the personal stories of scientists and subjects. Can you tell us a little about your writing process?

I usually write on the top of my blank sheet of paper “topic” like whether I’m going to be talking about, I don’t know, pregnancy or growth hormones — topic, story, or what is the point, so I’m always searching for the story that’s going to tell the science. I think the other thing is I have a really short attention space, so I think of that as I’m explaining the science. If I’m starting to go on for a page or two, I’ll figure out oh, maybe we can break this up and go back to some conversation ... I do rewrite a lot, and I delete a lot, too.

A lot of women were trailblazers in the study of hormones, like New Yorker Rosalyn Yalow and Georgeanna Jones. Was that intentionally part of your book?

You’re the second person to ask me that. It wasn’t consciously intentional, however when I’m doing my research I can’t help but love the stories of these women who should get more attention, but they don’t ... Like when it came to Georgeanna Jones, I remember I was talking to this group of friends who are writers, and you know how things go ... We were sitting around drinking and talking about the writing process, and I started to tell them about Howard and Georgeanna Jones, and while they did create America’s first test-tube baby together, and while she made a landmark finding of the pregnancy hormone while she was a female medical student (and there weren’t many female medical students back then), I also happened to throw out that she and her husband shared one desk their entire careers.

I can tell you I’m happily married, my husband and I have known each other since we were 17, but if we shared a partner’s desk we would not make it till lunchtime. And the fact they worked for decades together, they shared one car, they stared at each other, they worked in the same office, they were besottedly in love, I was like, America’s first test-tube baby? Well that’s okay. Sharing a desk with your husband and having that spark keep going for decades? That’s astonishing. That’s a miracle. So I was telling this story, and someone in my group said, “That’s how you begin your chapter.”

Today when we talk about hormones people tend to ascribe almost magic powers to them. I’m pregnant at the moment, and that certainly seems to be the case?

Oh absolutely. We ascribe so many magic powers to them. I mean, they are, in some ways, I wouldn’t say magical, but hormones are astonishing in the sense that I like to consider them our internal Wi-Fi ... It used to be that we thought every message in the body was transmitted by nerves, it just marched along, or it went through the blood and it just sort of washed up like oxygen ... but a hormone is a chemical that’s secreted from one gland and reaches a faraway target, like email. Like your pituitary [gland] will send out a little chemical of something — the pituitary is in the brain — and that chemical will know to target specific cells, whether it’s the ovary or the pancreas or the testes or the thyroid, so it’s really amazing that it’s like a bow and arrow. It’s really amazing that it knows where to go, but we tend to think of [hormones] as this nebulous thing. Oh, you’ll be “hormonal.” What does that really mean?

You’re a longtime Upper West Side resident. What do you love about the neighborhood?

When my kids were little (now they’re 18-25), I remember they watched the movie “Home Alone” and they thought in case you ever forgot about us — I mean, right, like I’m going on a family vacation and I’ll get halfway around the world and think, damn I forgot the kids — in case that ever happened, they wanted to figure out if they could eat three meals a day. And they did! They could go into Zingone on 83rd and Columbus, they could go into Broadway Farms, they knew the people at both places ... and they figured out the restaurants ... like T & R Pizza. Yes, it’s back, yay, on 78th! That’s a nice thing for kids to grow up knowing. They felt that they were in a community ... not to mention that I feel this strong sense of community, and we’re in each other’s business all the time, but then I can just walk a few blocks and be in Central Park and feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere, which I love.

Interested in having Randi Hutter Epstein speak at your book group? You can contact her via her website:

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