The Lucky Years
INTRODUCTION Destiny of the Species
Welcome to the Lucky Years
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t.
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest, act V, scene I
Miss Wanda Ruth Lunsford, twenty-six, must have been thinking about her own mortality the day she reported on a stunning experiment.1
Picture two rats, one old and gray, the other young and vivacious. Now imagine joining them surgically at their sides by peeling away a thin layer of skin and neatly stitching the exposed surfaces together. Through this Siamese-twin-like junction, the rodents are able to share their circulation, pumping each other’s blood and exchanging bodily fluids. Miss Lunsford and her colleagues wanted to see what would happen. Among the rats that survived the unnatural union, the geriatric ones physically turned into their younger counterparts, as if they’d tapped the fountain of youth. The elder rats gained shinier, more colorful fur and clearer eyes, taking on the general appearance of the younger rats hitched to their sides. A four-hundred-day-old rat, more or less akin to a middle-aged man, lived nearly as long as the spry counterpart to which he was attached.
When Miss Lunsford, a nutritionist and graduate student at Cornell University working in the lab of biochemist and gerontologist Clive McCay, shared these results at a gathering to focus on the problems of aging led by the New York Academy of Medicine, no one—not even Lunsford and her teammates—could explain this “age-reversal” transformation. The year was 1955, the same year the Food and Drug Administration approved the polio vaccine, the power of the placebo effect was first written about, Albert Einstein died at the age of seventy-six, and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were born.2
Miss Lunsford’s procedure, anatomically linking two organisms, had a name by then—parabiosis. But while this wasn’t the first time it had been performed, her explorations were among the first to use parabiosis to study aging. And they weren’t without their challenges. According to one description of the research, “If two rats are not adjusted to each other, one will chew the head of the other until it is destroyed.”3
Of the sixty-nine pairs of rats that Lunsford had helped conjoin in Clive McCay’s lab, eleven died from a peculiar condition that developed about one to two weeks after partners were united; it was likely a form of tissue rejection. But the pairs that survived gave a glimmer of hope for reversing the maladies we all face.
In February of 1956, McCay, Lunsford, and a third Cornell researcher, Frank Pope, published their findings on the procedure’s overall restorative effects in the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine with an apt title: “Experimental Prolongation of the Life Span.” In 1960, the results of Miss Lunsford’s investigations in McCay’s lab culminated in her thesis dissertation.4
But the research didn’t take off as you might expect in light of such intriguing findings. It pretty much sputtered and stalled for the next sixty-odd years. Interestingly enough, you can get a sense of the climate in which these scientists were working by reading a line in the opening paragraph of their paper: “Thus far man has made little progress in [studying aging] because human beings have chosen to expend their energies in improving the supposed comforts of living and methods of warfare.”