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Exhibition: Harvesting Hormones

  • Drawing of a cutaway view of the inside of a human male head in profile.  Inset shows a close up of the pituitary gland and surrounding area.

    “The position of the pituitary gland within the skull,” from The Pituitary Gland: Clinical Application of its Hormone Factors, Armour Laboratories, 1940s

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    The pituitary gland, the size of a chick pea, situated in the center of the brain, secretes nine different hormones, one of which regulates human growth.

  • Two photographs: A short teenage boy and a tall young man, both in uniforms, stand side by side. A man measures the height of the teenage boy.

    “How HGH Made One Dwarf Tall,” LIFE, October 14, 1966

    Courtesy © 1966 Time Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Images courtesy Royal Canadian Air Force.

    A young man featured in Life magazine in 1966 gained 15 inches with the help of growth hormone injections. Although the extracted hormone was available for therapeutic use by the late 1950s, its availability was severely restricted by the limited supply of human glands.

    How HGH made one dwarf tall

    One of the most striking cases of growth stimulated by injections of HGH is shown in these pictures of Frank Hooey. Above, prior to the treatment, Frank—then 15 and only 4’3” tall—stood next to a six-foot sergeant at Royal Canadian Air Force camp. Below, at 23, Franks stands in the kitchen doorway while his father records his new height—5’ 6 ½”.

  • Line drawing of a steer with the locations of its glands labeled.

    “The Steer” from Armour’s Endocrine and Other Organotherapeutic Preparations, 1940s

    Courtesy National Museum of American History

    Diagram of glands and organs used for making pharmaceutical preparations.

  • Closed sales kit shows eight glass vials representing the steps of manufacturing insulin and includes labels and photographs explaining the steps.

    Insulin sales kit, Eli Lilly and Company, 1940s

    Courtesy National Museum of American History

    In the early 1920s, Canadian researchers isolated insulin from the pancreas glands of animals and successfully treated children with diabetes. They partnered with the American company Eli Lilly to mass produce this life-saving substance. This sales kit illustrates the step-by-step process for manufacturing insulin.

  • White plastic test tubes with caps in white plastic test tube holder.  Tubes and holder have labels written on them in ink.

    Insulin plasmid tubes, 1970s

    Courtesy National Museum of American History

    These tubes contained samples of bacterial DNA which had been genetically modified to contain the human insulin gene. Researchers used the DNA in the original experiments to produce human insulin from recombinant bacteria.

  • Five labeled glass bottles and one box containing pituitary gland tablets and powders.

    Pituitary gland products, 1910s–1950s

    Courtesy National Museum of American History

    These bottles contain medicines made from the pituitary glands of cattle. Although these tablets and powders were widely available, they could not have been effective. Any hormones present were destroyed by the human digestive system before they could work. In the 1940s researchers isolated pure growth hormone from cattle glands. This hormone could be injected, but due to differences between species, bovine hormone was not effective for human use.

  • Hardcover book with prominent blue text on cover: “Grow Young with HGH.”

    Grow Young with HGH   by Dr. Ronald Klatz, 1998

    Courtesy Harper Collins and National Museum of American History

    Grow Young

    Lose Fat, Build Muscle
    Reverse the Effects of Aging
    Strengthen the Immune System
    Improve Sexual Performance
    Lower Blood Pressure and Cholesterol

    Dr. Ronald Klatz
    President, American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine

  • Magazine article with child’s growth chart on left page, and a smiling boy hanging by the arms from gymnastic rings on right.

    “My Little Brother on Drugs” by Jenny Everett, Popular Science, April 2004

    Used with permission of Popular Science Copyright ©2013. All rights reserved.

    The experience of a young boy on hGH therapy prompted his sister to ask, “Should we treat stature as a medical condition?”


    Last July, 9-year-old Alex Everett received his first shot of synthetic human growth hormone—an injection he’ll get every night for eight years. Alex isn’t sick—he’s short. Should we be treating stature as a medical condition? By Jenny Everett


  • Blue and white box with three white syringes, a needle, and a package of four needles displayed around the box.

    Posilac, recombinant bovine growth hormone, Monsanto Company, 1994

    Courtesy National Museum of American History

    Following the success of human growth hormone (hGH), researchers developed a recombinant bovine (cow) growth hormone, which became available in 1994. The drug did not treat a disorder in cattle, but instead drug companies marketed the substance to dairy farmers to increase milk production.

hormone iconHormones are complex molecules that regulate vital functions, including growth and development. In humans and animals, hormones are produced in glands and organs such as the pituitary, thyroid, and pancreas.

Before recombinant DNA technology, drug manufacturers extracted hormones, including insulin and growth hormone, directly from animal or human glands. Human growth hormone (hGH) required a supply of pituitary glands from human cadavers that was difficult to obtain.

The new technology ensured an abundant supply of these drugs. In the case of hGH, the number of children requiring it to treat pituitary gland disorders is quite small. However, with the supply secure new markets and applications emerged. The drug is used to increase height in otherwise healthy children, to enhance athletic performance, and to rejuvenate aging bodies.

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