The San Quentin Sex Gland Experiments

When Dr.  Leo Stanley expressed an opinion about criminal behaviour, people listened.  Even as he carried out some of the most outrageous medical experiments in California penal history.

As Chief Surgeon at California's San Quentin State Prison from 1913 to 1951, Dr. Stanley could always be counted by reporters and editors to share his own unique insights into the causes of crime, even long after his retirement.  Tall and thin with an aristocratic bearing, he even looked the part of a man who dedicated his life to treating society's misfits.  But for all his dedication to improving the medical facilities at the prison and serving as a pioneer in prison medicine, he was very much a man of his time when it came to being a devout believer in the "disease" model of crime, not to mention the role that "inferior genes" played in criminal behaviour.  

Though this kind of thinking would go out of style quickly enough after World War II due to the horrifying excesses of the Nazi regime,  Stanley remained a stern eugenicist for much of his career.  As a result, he openly advocated the sterilization of countless prisoners to prevent them from passing on their presumed genetic defects to their children.   Being Chief Surgeon, he was not only well-placed to recommend that prisoners be sterilized, he also personally carried out the operations for hundreds of prisoners over the years.   While involuntary sterilization was legal at the time in California, Dr. Stanley's gruff manner and the trust he instilled in the inmates he cared for was enough to convince most inmates to be sterilized "for their own good".  Stanley

Not that Stanley blamed all criminal behaviour on inferior genes.   In an influential 1923 article, he argued that criminals suffered from one of three kinds of disease:  moral, mental, and physical.  Even having poor eyesight could motivate some people to turn to crime due to their being unable to compete for jobs.   This motivated him to set up a cosmetic surgery program for inmates with deformities such as bad facial scars to improve their chances of re-entering society.   All in all, the "old croaker" as he was affectionately known by inmates, had a reputation for being hard-nosed but compassionate in treating his patients.  

Perhaps more importantly, when he wasn't talking to the press or tending to the medical needs of his prisoners, Leo Stanley also carried out his own research which, while largely ignored by the media during his lifetime, has earned him an even more bizarre form of immortality after his death.   Beginning in 1918, five years after first starting at San Quentin, he became inspired by the work of researchers such as  Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard and Serge Voronoff.   Both Brown-Sequard and Voronoff had gained fame by claims that implanting sex glands from young men into older men could effectively rejuvenate them.  While their medical colleagues tended to be skeptical, newspapers were more enthusiastic in suggesting that the key to eternal youth lay just around the corner (at least for men).

While some of the more bizarre claims being made still lay in the future, including the infamous John R. Brinkley and his "goat gland therapy",  Leo Stanley likely regarded himself as being in an excellent position to grab some of the Voronoff glory for himself.   Not only did he have hundreds of prisoners for his research subjects, but he also had access to the testicles of executed prisoners (did I mention that he was also the prison coroner?)   Though the families of some of the executed prisoners objected to organs being removed without permission, they were largely ignored.

Not that Stanley limited himself to human sexual organs.  His initial work implanting the testicles of executed prisoners into older prisoners hadn't worked out as he hoped since there weren't enough executed criminals to go around.   As an alternative,  he  switched to using goat glands instead.  In one radical experiment which was reported in a 1922 Los Angeles Times article, he implanted goat glands into 1,000 inmates (and a few overeager staff members).   This basically involved slicing the glands thinly, putting them into a syringe, and directly injecting the tissue into the patient's abdomen.  Some elderly inmates also got the "full treatment" with testicles from executed prisoners implanted into them.   Stanley brushed aside any concerns about tissue rejection and insisted that the transplanted tissue was “absorbed into the patient’s system without the slightest harm.”   

And it seemed to work, at least from the perspective of the reporter covering the story.   One 72-year-old prisoner receiving goat glands became “as lively as a young colt"  (or a kid, presumably).  How much of this was due to the placebo effect seems impossible to determine.  Still, Stanley seemed satisfied enough with the results to continue his experiments.  A 1940 United Press newspaper story was even more enthusiastic in describing Leo Stanley's gland research.   "Unknown to the outside world except for limited medical circles," the story begins, "San Quentin Prison for the past twenty two years has been the world's greatest clinic for rejuvenation experiments."   Over the course of those twenty-two years, Dr. Stanley carried out over 10,000 operations (all with the consent of the patient, the reporter was quick to point out).   According to Leo Stanley, the main source for the story, his operations were effective in treating acne, diabetes, asthma and "general systemic weakness."  

Stanley added that working on prisoners had many benefits for medical research since the patients could be observed for years afterward to see if any adverse problems developed.   The article insisted that the good doctor was in the process of preparing a final report that would sum up his findings.  Presumably he did though I couldn't find any record of it ever being written.

With the outbreak of World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States was soon at war.   To do his part for the war effort, Leo Stanley took a sabbatical from San Quentin and joined the navy as a surgeon.   Following the end of the war and his return to San Quentin however, he quickly found that eugenics and biological explanations for crime were no longer in favour.   Not only were sterilizations largely discontinued but his gland experiments were stopped completely due to pressure from prison officials.  The legal downfall of John R. Brinkley (the other goat gland doctor) had likely generated enough adverse publicity to make the California Department of Corrections somewhat leery about one of their own doctors conducting potentially dangerous experiments on inmates.  

His dream of human rejuvenation being dashed,  Stanley eventually retired from San Quentin in 1951 though his post-retirement life seemed idyllic enough.  He and his wife lived on their large estate in Marin County (despite his eugenic beliefs, they never had children).   When not working as a gentleman farmer and horse breeder, he served the occasional stint on cruise ships  and even had a brief political career, largely on the local Water Board.   He also dedicated himself to freelance writing, including a book based on his prison experiences, Men at their Worst.  Leo Stanley eventually died in 1976 at the age of 90 and his obituary made no mention of his strange experiments.  

Though Leo Stanley can be considered a pioneer in the use of hormone therapy to treat disease, his use of prisoners in potentially dangerous experiments seems incredible today.  Or, perhaps not.   Though hedied without ever seeing the massive rise in prison populations of the past twenty years,  Stanley might have appreciated the opportunities this kind of overcrowding might bring.   Some researchers are already advocating the loosening of restrictions on medical experiments using inmates while legislators in South Carolina have openly debated an incentive program to offer shorter sentences for inmates in exchange for organ donation.  

As prison populations rise and governments continue to be more concerned with punishment  rather than rehabilitation, who knows what the future will bring?

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