Illustration by Dave van Patten

A Brief History of the Ways Men Have Tried to Cure Impotence

Spoiler alert: Stuffing your scrotum with goat testicles won’t help

In 1918, Dr. John Romulus Brinkley gained fame and fortune for his purported miracle impotence cure. His method was simple. Brinkley sat impotent guys on the operating table, opened up their scrotums, stuffed goat testicles inside, and sewed ’em back up. He didn’t even suture the testicles into the bloodstream or attach them in any way. He just threw them in there as one would throw an errant sock into the spin cycle.

As you’d expect, Brinkley’s “cure” didn’t do a whole lot other than gifting patients an awkward chunk of flesh floating in their sacks. (And, in some cases, an early grave.) But the power of placebo, combined with the desperation of flaccid men, was enough that Brinkley was able to charge $750 per operation and gain enough followers to morph into a radio show demagogue who nearly won the Kansas governorship.

Brinkley’s strange rise and notoriety is the focus of filmmaker Penny Lane’s newest documentary, Nuts!, released on Amazon, iTunes and elsewhere in January. The wildly engaging film reveals how Brinkley, despite being a bullshit artist, was able to harness the power of mass media to reach and exploit the deepest insecurities of older men of means.

It shouldn’t be a shock that Brinkley built his fortune and amassed his power by appealing to the faulty testicles of old men. Impotence makes otherwise reasonable men do crazy things. Not being able to participate in the act of intercourse not only messes with whatever embedded drive there is to procreate, but contradicts the masculinity messaging delivered from a young age — through pop culture, repeated by friends — that the most worthwhile man is a “stud.”

There’s also no shortage of the afflicted. impotence afflicts upwards of 3 million men a year in the U.S. alone. At its core, ED happens when the body doesn’t send enough blood to the penis at the time when it’s most needed, but the causes are myriad. Hypertension, diabetes, hormone imbalances, neurological disorders, or even general anxiety can be enough to clamp the main vein. And the lack of a single cause means an unlimited number of possible remedies.

The history of impotence cures stretches as far back as the written record, and surely, some caveman somewhere huffed the gonads of a wooly mammoth in the hopes that sensation would return to his member. So, let’s take a tour of how we’d tried to make old guys hard again.

The ancients: Baby alligator heart and thistle

An early theme in the treating of dick-maladies is eating gross stuff. Ancient Roman author Pliny the Elder promoted chewing leeks and garlic, and guzzling down the water of boiled asparagus. Aristotle milked beetles named lytta vesicatoria (aka, Spanish fly) and swirled them in other people’s cocktails, likely causing more GI issues than “sexy feelings.” The Compleat Midwife’s Practice of 1659 says that boner rejuvenation — which is referred to as a “charmed codpiece” — occurs by “drinking a drought of cold water that drops from the mouth of a young horse as he drinks, saved in a little vessel.”

But it was Albertus Magnus, a canonized Catholic friar from the 13th century, who was more explicit with his instructions in his De Animalibus, an encyclopedic work that was the go-to research for all things zoological through the 15th century. In it, Magnus called for a wolf’s penis to be “roasted in an oven, cut into small pieces, and a small portion of this […] chewed.” If that didn’t work, eating sparrow meat would kindle sexual desire. Consuming starfish was a last resort because, while an aphrodisiac, it could also lead to ejaculating blood, which no one wants.

Burn the witches

As is the norm when guys get frustrated, blame was soon cast outward for their limp dicks. Thomas Aquinas blamed the devil (as Thomas Aquinas does), and a few hundred years later, German Catholic Heinrich Kramer twisted that into Chapter VI of his Malleus Maleficarum entitled “How Witches Impede and Prevent the Power of Procreation.” Kramer’s thesis is that God gave witches the power over the penis in two ways:

First, when they directly prevent the erection of the member which is accommodated to fructification. And this need not seem impossible, when it is considered that they are able to vitiate the natural use of any member. Secondly, when they prevent the flow of the vital essences to the members in which resides the motive force, closing up the seminal ducts so that it does not reach the generative vessels, or so that it cannot be ejaculated, or is fruitlessly spilled.

In contemporary terms, witches stop boners, and when they don’t, they at least keep the semen inside so as to not cause pregnancy. Despite the obvious benefits of this second action, these claims were enough to compel erection-less dudes to accuse women of witchcraft and insist on their execution.

Handjobs and hot irons

During the 16th century, “consensus science” believed the cure to impotence to be a handjob. That is, if the man was unable to summon at least a chub when a woman touched him, he was sent away as a lost cause. The 19th century updated that “external touch” idea in the Cyclopedia of Practice Medicine, which believed impotence came from regional overuse, hence a recommendation of dousing the area in cold water twice a day.

Around the same time, American sex educator Frederick Hollick had a few ideas about impotence, including that it was found only in overly sensitive men. In his book, The Origin of Life and Process of Reproduction in Plants and Animals, he writes:

A too great intensity of the sexual feeling itself, during association, will sometimes cause impotence, by overpowering the patient before the act can be properly consummated. I have known instances of men who always became then so intensely excited that they fell into a kind of dreamy stupor, and had involuntary emissions while in that state.

Haven’t we all? To combat this, he recommended soothing heated lotions (checks out), a mechanical air pump placed on the penis (suuure), self-flagellating the dick until it “smarts” (um…), and burning the genitals with a smooth iron (*faints*). Hollick later recommended cannabis, but also then proposed that female impotence was caused by ladies having vaginas that were too small, so.

Radium suppositories and other wonders of the Industrial Age

The rise of the Industrial Revolution saw advances in manufacturing techniques — meaning advances in things that dudes strapped onto their floppy packages. The Sears, Roebuck & Co. sold a “Giant Power Heidelberg Electric Belt” that promised to shock one’s junk back to life. The Vital Power Vacuum Massager was a Fleshlight precursor with a crank at the top to increase blood flow. Also used were galvanic baths, where gents sat in tubs of water that had been “enhanced” by electrodes. Sometimes they dunked their entire body; sometimes they suspended only their penis and testicles into “local electric baths.”

But the most terrible idea surely was the radium cure. After Marie and Pierre Curie isolated the element in 1898, it was soon used to cure malignant tumors. It quickly became a cure-all, delivered to the populace in tonics, spas, pillows and even cigarette holders. It only made sense, then, that radium could cure impotence. In the late 1920s, the Home Product Company of Denver, Colorado sold a product known as “Vita Radium Suppositories.” From the box:

If YOU are showing signs of “slowing up” in your actions and duties, perhaps long before you should — if you have begun to lose your charm, your personality, your normal manly vigor — certainly you want to stage a “comeback.” The man who has lost these precious attributes of youth knows how to appreciate their value. He realizes that happiness depends on his ability to perform the duties of a REAL MAN. Sweet, glorious pleasures of life. Nature intended that you should enjoy them.

It was among at least five other radium-based items the mail-order company sold. In 1931, it was put out of business by the government for fraud.

Testicles on testicles

Dr. Brinkley (spoiler: not a doctor) was not the first to try to cure impotence by throwing foreign objects into the testes. Victor Lespinasse from Northwestern University first implanted human testicle slices in 1913. The following year, Dr. G. Frank Lydston grafted an entire testicle onto another testicle — his own. In 1919, Russian doctor Serge Voronoff began experimenting with transplanting chimpanzee balls into the sacks of impotent men, inspiring the resident physician at San Quentin, L.L. Stanley, to realize that he was sitting on a gold mine formed of the balls of executed convicts. They weren’t using them anymore anyway.

The future

In 1981, as the pharmaceutical industry was taking off, the French cardiovascular doctor Dr. Ronald Virag began experimenting with testosterone injections. This led to the creation of a solution composed of the poppy-derived drug papaverine, and so ushered in the Age of Viagra. Money was quickly thrown into ancillary research, and soon various kinds of boner pills found their way into household conversations through the window of ads during the Super Bowl. That’s where we’re at now.

What does the future of old erection procurement look like? Drugs are getting more refined, as are methods to prop the penis up — an invention called The Erektor, consisting of two loops and a rod in a cutesy old school kind of way, is near market — but those are boring. The hot, new, exciting (read: insane, best left unrealized) wave of dong therapy is tinkering with DNA, using nickel-titanium alloys to create dick cyborgs, full-blown transplants, or even rubbing nanotechnology against the shaft and letting those tiny machines do their work. (And then, surely, collecting the boner’s data and selling it to advertisers.)

Beyond that, it’s speculation. But if history is any indication, it’s safe to say that when the Singularity finally comes and solves all the world’s problems — or wipes us out, solving the problem of the world — that it’s not the end of famine or deep exploration into the darkness of space that’ll most excite the planet’s old, limp men. It’ll be that they can once again get their bone on.