The monkey gland mystery

Behind the throwaway phrase ‘he’s been on the monkey glands’ lies a story of stimulant abuse, a notorious Russian scientist, a shadowy Scottish chemist and strange goings-on in the farming villages of Perthshire.

By Stuart Cosgrove

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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Far from the high-tech secrecy that now shrouds performance-enhancing drugs in sport, monkey glands were an open secret, known to fans, to players and to the press.

I first encountered the mystery of the monkey glands whilst travelling north to a St Johnstone away game with my school friend Mike Lawrence. His father had been a stalwart of a hidden but important area of Scottish football, the village sides that stretched out across rural Scotland in the early days of the game. Jim Lawrence was President of Bankfoot Athletic, the team that discovered Paul Sturrock, and throughout his life was prone to using an expression that baffled the young footballers he was coaching.  Whenever a player was on form or dominating a game, Jim used to say “he’s been on the monkey glands”. It was an expression of such preposterous magic that his son and I went on a social-history research trip to find out what it meant, and how it had come to enter the vocabulary of Scottish football.

Such is the wandering way of the monkey-gland mystery that we followed its meandering path from Moscow to Paris, to Amsterdam and to England before ending up back at the very start, in the village where Mike grew up.

Village football was once fiercely competitive in Scotland and one of Bankfoot Athletic’s main rivals was a nearby village team Luncarty, whose most famous player was Jim Guthrie, a local famer’s son. Guthrie graduated from the ranks of Scottish youth international teams to a professional contract with Dundee, who sold him on to Portsmouth.

It was when he was captain of Portsmouth, in the weeks before the outbreak of World War II, that Jim Guthrie held the FA Cup aloft. Portsmouth FC were the undisputed winners of what was known to the popular press at the time as the ‘Monkey Gland Final’. They had hammered the favourites and much-fancied Wolverhampton Wanderers 4-1. Wolves’ dictatorial manager, Major Frank Buckley, was roundly ridiculed as he left the field,  jeered by thousands of Portsmouth matelots waving their navy hats triumphantly in the air.

Monkey-gland juice was a briefly fashionable stimulant in the pre-war game, probably the first performance enhancing substance known to professional football, although amphetamine abuse was also widely common at the time too. Bizarre as it may sound now, all 22 players that featured in the 1939 final were “on the monkey glands” and Jim Guthrie said in a post-match interview “our glands were obviously better than theirs”.

Guthrie, his Portsmouth teammates, and the entire Wolverhampton Wanderers squad had taken concoctions of a juice extracted from the glands and testicles of monkeys, apes and other primates. To this day the story is astounding. In the case of Wolves their players were taking the gland-juice intravenously, injected on a weekly basis and the doses were increased in the run-up to the final. As for Portsmouth, their team maintained a cultured dignity sipping the monkey juice from cocktail glasses. A photograph has survived of the Portsmouth team, in full kit, swigging the monkey glands as their trainer stands by, with a half-full bottle of the elixir. Far from the high-tech secrecy that now shrouds performance-enhancing drugs in sport, monkey glands were an open secret, known to fans, to players and to the press.

It is here that the mystery takes on another twist. Guthrie claims that the practice was widespread in Scottish football before the war, and that farmers often stewed the balls of cattle they had castrated to improve their well-being. When the leagues reformed in 1945, the National Health Service was born and new food standards came into effect. The practice of extracting animal juices faded and the monkey-gland craze fell out of fashion.

Although the English game was demonstrably rife with the practice, it was a mysterious Scottish-chemist called Menzies Sharp who was the main supplier of monkey-gland extracts to the professional game. His theories about performance enhancement were in vogue throughout the late 1930s and Sharp was seen to be well connected and famously well-informed.  Sharp was a student of the notorious Russian scientist Abrahamovitch Voronoff who pioneered experiments with the testicles of wild animals and who even went to the extent of grafting goats’ penises on to other animals. Voronoff, a Parisian-based doctor to the wealthy, was something of an infamous crank who influenced a Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Adventures of a Creeping Man’ about an ageing lothario who fears he’s losing his potency and takes monkey glands. But for all the eccentricity of Voronoff’s activities his ideas were not entirely without merit.  In 1935, when Dutch scientists analysed his theories and examined the gland-juice in forensic detail, they isolated a hormone within the glands which they named testosterone.

Menzies Sharp was a salesman first and foremost. He had gained what was in effect a franchise to sell Voronoff’s ideas and elixirs across the UK from his base in Edinburgh, where he also supposedly experimented with his own variations. Rightly assuming that professional football would be a way of reaching many more users, he approached several football bosses, among them Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Major Frank Buckley, convincing him that monkey-glands, and the testosterone therein, would improve his team’s performance. It seemed to work. Wolverhampton raced through the league and  threatened to take over the Preston Invincibles’ tag of 1880, as the team you’ll never beat. What Buckley did not know was that Sharp was also touting the elixir round every club in Scotland and England and had sold bottles of monkey gland juice to his Wembley rivals, Jim Guthrie’s Portsmouth.

Of the Scots that played that day at Wembley, all had taken monkey juice.  Guthrie captained the team. Lewis Morgan, from Cowdenbeath, a former Dundee defender already capped by the Scottish league before moving south, played at left-back and is one of several links back to Dens Park. Jock Anderson, a Dundee native and the scorer of one of Portsmouth’s goals at Wembley, was an old-fashioned centre forward and is one of the players photographed drinking the gland-juice. He too had trained at Dens as a youth. As for Wolves, Alex McIntosh from Dunfermline was a creative inside-forward and alone among the Scots who played in the final he was injected with the monkey glands immediately before the game. 

Although there is no conclusive evidence of monkey-gland abuse at Dens itself, many of the tributaries lead back to the mouth of the Tay, and spread down through the farming villages of Perthshire, to places where access to animal glands were readily available and cheap. Tommy Smith was Guthrie’s oldest friend. They first met playing football for their village school in Luncarty and were the sons of local farmers.  He signed for Dundee, a season before Guthrie.  Another confirmed user of the testosterone-substitute was yet another of Guthrie’s pals from Luncarty, Bob Salmond, who by the mid-1930s had left Portsmouth and signed for Chelsea.  The formidable Dundee team of 1934-5 captained by Scot Symon, subsequently the Rangers manager, were all contemporaries of Guthrie, and many of them like Symon, who was from the village of Errol, came from the Perthshire village football league. Symon also transferred from Dundee south to Portsmouth, but left the south-coast to join Rangers the season before the ‘Monkey Gland Final’, and may therefore have been spared the unknown pleasures of drinking the secreted juice of a chimpanzee’s testicles. Or maybe not.

The Monkey-Gland Mystery almost certainly has other secrets yet to be revealed but the outbreak of war has left a vacuum in the story that may never be filled. The late Ian Redford, who grew up in the same village as Scot Symon, told me before his tragic death that when he was a kid, he remembers old farmers from the village joking about monkey glands. But it was to him just ancient history and Lucozade was on public sale.

When football resumed after the war the elixir seemed to have disappeared completely, and the experiments that had once been commonplace in professional football fell out of fashion. Curiously, the post war period was a golden era for a rejuvenated Dundee and within five years of VE Day, they were runners-up in the Scottish League Championship and won their first trophy for more than 40 years.

I will not force any unsubstantiated thoughts. It would be deeply unkind for a cynical St Johnstone fan to even to begin to suggest that Dundee’s success in the 1940s provides even the flimsiest of evidence that monkey-gland abuse survived the war.  That would be a calumny that not even I could put in the reader’s mind.

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

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