Friday, May 23, 2008

Black Oxen and the regain of youth

If you like stories featuring Jazz-age high society, you might want to download Gertrude Atherton's 1923 number one best seller Black Oxen. What's the biological and/or science fiction connection? It's the story of the beautiful Countess Zattiany, who causes a stir when she appears in New York because of her mysterious background and strong resemblance to the elderly Mary Ogden, who also is a Countess Zattiany. Have you guessed the twist? The young Countess is Mary herself, having undergone a rejuvenation treatment in Vienna. It's oh so scientific:

"It may relieve your minds to hear that I was at first as indifferent as all of you no doubt would have been. The war—and many other things—had made me profoundly tired of life—something of course that I do not expect you to understand. And now that the war was over and my usefulness at an end, I had nothing to look forward to but the alleviation of poverty by means of my wealth when it was restored, and this could be done by trustees. Life had seemed to me to consist mainly of repetitions. I had run the gamut. But I began to be interested, at first by the fact that science might be able to accomplish a miracle where centuries of woman's wit had failed——"

"Wit?" snorted Mrs. Vane. "Ignoble vanity."

"Well, call it that if you like, but the desire to be young again or to achieve its simulacrum, in both men and women, has something of the dignity which the centuries give to all antiques. However, at the time, you will also be glad to know, I was far more interested in the prospect of reënergizing my worn out mind and body. I was so mortally tired! And if I had to live on, and no doubt with still much work to do in distracted Europe——"

"But what did they do to you?" cried Mrs. Tracy. "I'd have done it in your place—yes, I would!" she said defiantly as she met the august disgusted eye of Mrs. Vane. "I think Countess Zattiany was quite right. What is science for, anyhow?"

"Go on! Go on!" murmured Mrs. Goodrich. She was too fat and comfortable to have any desire to return to youth with its tiresome activities, but all her old romantic affection for Mary Ogden had revived and she was even more interested than curious.

"I am trying to! Well, I must tell you that the explanation of my condition, as of others of my age, was that the endocrines——"

"The what?" The demand was simultaneous.

"The ductless glands."

"Oh," said Mrs. Prevost vaguely, "I've seen something——"

"It is all Greek to me," said Mrs. Vane, who felt that unreasoning resentment common to the minor-informed for the major-informed. "You promised to avoid technical terms."

Madame Zattiany explained in the simplest language she could command the meaning and the function of the ductless glands. The more intelligent among them looked gratified, for the painless achievement of fresh knowledge is a pleasant thing. Madame Zattiany went on patiently: "These glands in my case had undergone a natural process of exhaustion. In women the slower functioning of the endocrines is coincident with the climacteric, as they have been dependent for stimulation upon certain ovarian cells. The idea involved is that the stimulation of these exhausted cells would cause the other glands to function once more at full strength and a certain rejuvenation ensue as a matter of course; unless, of course, they had withered beyond the power of science. I was a promising subject, for examination proved that my organs were healthy, my arteries soft; and I was not yet sixty. Only experimentation could reveal whether or not there was still any life left in the cells, although I responded favorably to the preliminary tests. The upshot was that I consented to the treatment——"

"Yes? Yes?" Every woman in the room now sat forward, no longer old friends or rivals, affectionate or resentful, nor the victims of convention solidified into sharp black and white by the years. They were composite female.

"It consisted of the concentration of powerful Röntgen—what you call X-Rays—on that portion of the body covering the ovaries——"

"How horrible!" "Did you feel as if you were being electrocuted?" "Are you terribly scarred?"

"Not at all. I felt nothing whatever, and there was nothing to cause scars——"

"But I thought that the X-Rays——"

"Oh, do be quiet, Louisa," exclaimed Mrs. Tracy impatiently. "Please go on, Countess Zattiany."

"As I said, the application was painless, and if no benefit results, neither will any harm be done when the Rays are administered by a conscientious expert. My final consent, as I told you, was due to the desire to regain my old will power and vitality. I was extremely skeptical about any effect on my personal appearance. During the first month I felt so heavy and dull that, in spite of assurances that these were favorable symptoms, I was secretly convinced that I had forfeited what little mental health I had retained; but was consoled by the fact that I slept all night and a part of the day: I had suffered from insomnia since my duties at the hospital had ended——"

Yes, they X-rayed her ovaries to make her young. If only it were so simple! A contemporary reviewer in Time Magazine was not completely convinced :
The scientific probability of Mary Zattiany's rejuvenation has caused considerable discussion. Such cures have been affirmed. Whether they are sufficiently established to warrant Mrs. Atherton's use of the idea is another matter.
I guess that's the difference between science fiction and other literature - science fiction can use science that's not in the least "established" to create an entertaining story.

• Download Black Oxen from
• Download Black Oxen from Project Gutenburg

(via Futurismic)

Image: still from the 1923 movie version of Black Oxen, from the Project Gutenberg HTML version of the text


  1. Anonymous1:36 PM

    Oh for Pete's sake!!! You refer to the Elderly Mary Blah Blah. Then we find out:

    I was a promising subject, for examination proved that my organs were healthy, my arteries soft; and I was not yet sixty.

    I guess those were the days when women (and men) didn't live very much past 50s or 60s?

    Did you know that Biology in Science Fiction is the fifth hit on Google when I searched: black oxen Gertrude Atherton movie or play?

    And did you know that Gertrude had undergone this x-ray-the-ovaries treatment and really felt invigorated? She lived to the ripe old age of 91?


  2. Of course I shouldn't have implied Mary was elderly. She was squarely middle aged. :-)

    I did not realize that she had undergone the treatments herself. I guess they didn't hurt her any! After Googling there's a bit about it here.


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