The talk began, as all great urology lectures should, with slides of the speaker’s own penis. The erection plastered over the screen, explained Dr. Giles Brindley, was caused by smooth muscle relaxant injected directly into his shaft. It’s a method so powerful, he continued, that a single dose can make an impotent man stay hard for hours. In fact, concealed behind the podium, Brindley was hard right now. He shot up in his hotel room beforehand.
Skeptical? The audience sure was. This was 1983 by the way. Viagra, and the days when aging senators and soccer legends spoke candidly about their struggles with ED, were still years off. So the elderly professor leapt from behind the podium and dropped his slacks, revealing “a long, thin, clearly erect [achem] penis.”1
Now, he said, “I’d like to give some of the audience the opportunity to confirm the degree of tumescence.”1
Pants at his knees, Brindley shuffled awkwardly toward the first row of horrified urologists. The future of male sexual therapy flopped between his legs, joggling to and fro with each step. Women began to scream.
As jarring and painful as penile injection therapy may seem, it’s genteel compared to the so-called treatments it came to replace.
Disgraced Russian surgeon Serge Voronoff advocated grafting monkey testicles to our own in order to effect rejuvenation. Beyond that, there were penile prostheses, rods fashioned from silicone (or initially bone and cartilage) and surgically inserted into the penis to restore rigidity. And let’s not forget the inflatable phallic sacs controlled by scrotum-embedded pumps, shall we?
What’s more, injection treatment really worked—too well even. In a 1986 paper,2 Brindley injected 17 different drugs into his own penis and measured the effects. The most successful dose resulted in an erection lasting 44 hours, well beyond the 4 hour limit after which Pfizer recommends you seek immediate medical assistance.
The sheer force of Brindley’s “technological marvel of phallic authority,”3 compelled people to take notice.
The New York Times went as far as to declare Brindley’s spectacle the herald of a “second sexual revolution.”4 “The…revolutionary import,” explains sociologist Barbara Marshall, “was to visibly sever the mechanism of penile erection from any sort of psychological or emotional arousal…and to reconceptualize it as a primarily physiological event.”5
But if Brindley was the Che in this bizarrely literal penile “uprising,” Pfizer was more like Castro.
Just two years after Brindley’s lecture, Pfizer began noticing strangely pleasurable side-effects in Sildenafil, a drug it was developing to treat Angina. A decade later, Sildenafil was on the market as Viagra. Scholar Stephen Maddison cites the success of the good doctor’s erection as a crucial inspiration for the pharmaceutical giant.3
Viagra and its competitors now constitute a multi-billion dollar a year industry. And while spokes-parody Bob Dole was the face of the drug in the 90s, these days Viagra is increasingly targeting young, healthy individuals.
Now more than ever, we are a culture of what Annie Potts terms “viagra cyborgs” or “viagraborgs”—half man, half pharmaceutically modulated erection machine.
It was Sir Brindley (yeah, he was knighted) who unleashed unto us this strange breed of male sexual prowess. The man himself seems to have slid silently into the cryptosphere. But his legacy lives on in the scores of risqué Viagra, Levitra, and Cialis ads that continue to bop us over the head with the blunt force, if not the physical manifestation, of an erect penis.
1. Klotz, L. (2005). How (not) to communicate new scientific information: A memoir of the famous Brindley lecture. British Journal of Urology International, 96(7), 956-957.
2. Brindley, G. S. (1986). Pilot experiments on the actions of drugs injected into the human corpus cavernosum penis. British Journal of Pharmacology, 87, 495-500.
3. Maddison, S. (2009). “The second sexual revolution”: Big pharma, porn and the biopolitical penis. TOPIA, Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, 22, 35-53.
4. Hitt, J. (2000, February 20, 2000). The second sexual revolution. The New York Times.
5. Marshall, B. (2002). ‘Hard science’: Gendered constructions of sexual dysfunction in the ‘Viagra age’. Sexualities, 5(2), 131-158.
6. Jonas, U. (2001). The history of erectile dysfunction management. International Journal of Impotence Research, 13, S3-S7.
7. Potts, A. (2005). Cyborg masculinity in the Viagra era. Sexualities, Evolution & Gender, 7(1), 3-16.
8. Brindley, G. (1968). The logical bassoon. The Galpin Society Journal, 21, 152-161.
9. Showalter, A. (2006). The logical basoon. Retrieved January 18th, 2012, 2012, from http://alignmap.com/giles-brindley-the-logical-bassoon/