The San Quentin prison doctor who performed over 10,000 human experiments
Shortly before Thanksgiving 1919, as Antone Lepara was waiting to be hanged for murder, his soon-to-be widow received an unusual request.
The letter asked Mrs. Lepara if she would be willing to sell her husband’s testicles after his death. The writer, a wealthy businessman, was willing to pay $10,000 — almost $150,000 in today’s money.
It was a good arrangement all-around for the businessman. He’d have a new, virile pair of testes from a man no longer in need of them, and one of America’s foremost experts on gland surgery worked right on the prison premises: San Quentin Chief Surgeon Leo Stanley.
In the year since starting gland transplants, Dr. Stanley had already made a name for himself. He was experimenting with putting animal testicles into men, but human-to-human transplants were preferred. Working at San Quentin gave him access to the organs of recently dead young men at a rate few other doctors could boast.
Mrs. Lepara had two daughters to support, and $10,000 would have made their lives much easier in the wake of their breadwinner’s death. But, without much agonizing, she turned the anonymous businessman down.
"It would seem too much like blood money," she said.
The change of plans didn’t bother Stanley; instead, he decided the glands would go to a “senile” older inmate. It was a common enough procedure for the doctor.
In the next 20 years, he would perform over 10,000 testicular implants within the walls of San Quentin State Prison.
Later in life, when Leo Stanley was known as the foremost prison doctor in the country, he shared his rags-to-riches story with gusto. He was born in 1886 in Polk County, Oregon to a country doctor. They moved to California when Leo was nine and he graduated from Paso Robles High before starting at Stanford in 1903.
A year later, Stanley was flat broke. He dropped out and got a job as a peanut butcher — slang for newsboy — on the Southern Pacific railway.
“I believe that one year as a peanut butcher was better than a whole at Stanford,” he said in an oral history with the Marin County Free Library in the 1970s. “I learned to know people. I learned to merchandise, to sell."
Selling was a strong suit of Stanley’s, and he sold nothing more vigorously than himself. He eventually returned to Stanford and finished his schooling, becoming a doctor. But then he fell in love and needed a steady job to support his new wife. He offered up his services at San Quentin, which hired him in 1913 to be their chief surgeon. At the time, he had no surgical experience.
Upon arriving, Stanley remarked later, he was upset by the lack of racial segregation among the inmates.
"Whites, Negroes, and Indians commingled here indiscriminately,” he complained.
A lifelong eugenicist — a belief he continued to hold well past Nazi horrors being revealed — Stanley set about making changes immediately.
Before he hit on gland implants, his favorite fix was sterilization. In 1909, California passed the first of several eugenics-driven laws that allowed for the forced sterilization of inmates and mental hospital patients considered “unfit” for society. Stanley once said he believed at least 20% of inmates were “feeble minded” and lamented he could not sterilize more inmates than he was legally allowed.
In his 1940 prison memoir “Men at Their Worst,” Stanley recounted the story of a man named Nelson, imprisoned for forging a $5 check. He was a “typical prison malingerer," Stanley wrote, who was a "perfect specimen for any proponent of euthanasia, or painless elimination of the socially unfit."
Those he could not forcibly sterilize, he attempted to talk into the procedure. In 1935, he put up a poster in the prison yard extolling the virtues of the surgery: "This simple operation prevents the man from producing children, but it does not interfere with his normal pleasures. In fact, it is claimed that sexual vigor is increased.”
Many who volunteered thought it would improve their health — Stanley claimed vasectomies would prevent some sexually transmitted diseases, which they do not — and perhaps supercharge their libido. In two decades, Stanley sterilized 600 prisoners, far more other California prisons.
He also tried his hand at plastic surgery, convinced that unattractive men were more likely to commit crimes because they couldn’t find honest work. He’d pin back large ears, remake broken noses. Upon his retirement, a Chronicle story praised his ability to turn “plug-uglies into facial men of distinction.” Some of his work was so dramatic the San Quentin warden made it policy to take a new mugshot of prisoners upon their release.
But Stanley’s main obsession was with the budding field of endocrinology.
"Disease, in my opinion, causes crime,” he once said. He believed murderers probably had overdeveloped thyroids and forgers had underdeveloped pituitary glands. He was known to remove the thyroids of men who behaved badly in prison, claiming it turned them docile.
But the cure-all was gland replacement. Since the late 1800s, doctors in the United States and Europe had been grafting testicles into men (and sometimes women) in the hopes of increasing vitality, reversing aging and, of course, making impotent men virile. They also experimented with using vasectomies to bolster sexual performance. The procedure was trendy among European elites: William Butler Yeats and Sigmund Freud (not hard to psychoanalyze that one) both had “rejuvenation” operations.
If you are squeamish, you may now want to skip ahead. Stanley had two preferred methods of testicle grafting. The first was taking testicles from executed inmates or, lacking that, goats, boars, rams or deer and putting them into the scrotum of the recipient. He believed the body absorbed the testosterone, immediately boosting the donor's own waning hormones.
But this, Stanley admitted, didn’t always work and had more complications. Instead, he started trying a less-invasive procedure. First, he would take the donor testicles and mash them up into a paste. Then, he’d inject the mixture into the recipient’s abdomen.
It was a procedure Stanley firmly believed in. He thought it cured, among other things, acne, asthma and depression.
"One melancholiac [sic] who would not talk or show any activity whatever, was observed to have an erection a few days after implantation,” he boasted.
In addition, he argued pedophilia was caused by old age, the effects of which could practically be reversed with gland replacement.
"This form of insanity can overtake the finest of old men, in the best of families… Perhaps the outworn glands look for solace in strange directions,” he wrote in “Men at Their Worst.” "... Their condition has nothing to do with the sort of men they have been."
Three of Stanley’s first four gland "donors" — all executed prisoners — were non-white. The recipients almost certainly were. As for his anti-miscegenation views, Stanley believed reproduction and general “vitality” weren’t connected, so mixing glands wouldn’t result in mixed race children.
It is not known how often, if ever, he asked death row inmates for permission to use their glands. At least one episode resulted in a lawsuit.
In 1928, Clarence Kelly was hanged for killing three people. His body was cut down and autopsied by Stanley, who then removed Kelly’s testicles to graft into an elderly prisoner.
When Kelly’s uncle came to claim the body, he was shocked to see it had been cut into. Kelly’s mother sued Stanley for mutilation of a corpse, claiming she hadn’t consented to an autopsy. Stanley escaped conviction.
After the outbreak of World War II, Stanley left San Quentin to serve as a navy doctor. When he returned, the world was very different. San Quentin was under control of the California Department of Corrections, and nationwide, in light of Nazi war crimes, Stanley's favorite methods were very much on the way out.
"The attitude of the present Department of Corrections is entirely adverse to sterilization," Stanley bemoaned in a letter to a fellow eugenicist.
He stayed at San Quentin for a few more years, retiring in 1951 to his private practice in Marin. In his almost 40 years as a San Quentin doctor, he had given 10,000 inmates, fellow doctors and the occasional civilian a gland rejuvenation procedure. He saw prisoners not as a psychologically fraught population — willing to submit themselves to human experiments in exchange for better treatment or because of their self-destructive tendencies — but as an endless wellspring of test rabbits.
In a 2009 academic paper published in the Pacific Historical Review, historian Ethan Blue summed up Stanley’s career thusly:
"Stanley sought surgical solutions to criminal behavior,” Blue writes. His “long tenure meant that he had tremendous influence at San Quentin and on its residents' lives, perhaps more important to its inmates' lives than any warden."
At some point, Stanley himself underwent a "rejuvenation" treatment — although nothing as drastic as a full gland graft. Instead, he got a vasectomy, hoping it would prolong his life.
He died at the age of 90, childless.
Katie Dowd is an SFGATE Senior Digital Editor. Contact: [email protected] | Twitter: @katiedowd