Romanian physician Ana Aslan (1897–1988) co-founded the Institute of Gerontology and Geriatrics and developed a wildly popular anti-aging drug. Specialized in gerontology, a term she was credited with coining, she developed medicines and treatments that aided her many aging patients. Through her work, she gained worldwide acclaim, in part due to the rich and famous people who sought treatment at her clinics.
Ana Aslan (1897–1988), a physician from Romania, was inspired to specialize in gerontology, the study of aging, after watching her elderly father die during her early teens. Determined to become a doctor, she battled gender discrimination while attending medical school, establishing her practice, and carving out a place in her field. In 1952, she co-founded the world's first Institute of Gerontology and Geriatrics, and she also developed Gerovital, a popular but controversial anti-aging drug. Eventually becoming well-known and traveling the world to promote her work, Aslan is remembered as a pioneer in modern anti-aging research.
Aslan was born on January 1, 1897, into an upper-class merchant family living in Braila, Romania, a thriving, cosmopolitan port town on the Danube River. Ana's father, Margarit Aslan, made his living in the grain trade, although he hailed from a family of scientists and writers, and preferred the company of artists and intellectuals. Her mother Sofia was an energetic young beauty from a noble family who spoke several languages and loved classical music and literature. Aslan was the youngest of five children, four of whom survived childhood: brothers Bombonel and Sergiu and sister Angela, and Ana. A child prodigy, she could read and write by age four and her serious nature drew her to the company of adults, where she joined in discussions regarding art and politics. Fluent in French, she was indulged by her doting father and showed off to visitors; from her multitalented mother she learned to make her own clothing, play music, and persevere through life's challenges.
When Aslan was 13, tuberculosis claimed the life of her 72-year-old father. The slow progression of the disease, which had no known cure at the time, made a lasting, painful impression on the young teen, and she vowed to fight such hopelessness by becoming a doctor. More specifically, she was determined to fight the seemingly inevitable negative aspects of aging and promote vibrancy and well-being among the elderly.
After Aslan's father's death, her widowed mother moved the family to Bucharest, Romania's capital city. After completing her basic education, she wanted to enroll in medical school, and when her mother refused, the young woman went on a hunger strike. The strategy worked, her mother relented, and Aslan started her studies, impressing the faculty with her work ethic, original ideas, and skill. Her bright ideas and original contributions surprised her professors, as did her superior grades. While interning with a series of mentors who were leaders in their areas of expertise, she met George Marinescu, who introduced her to geriatrics. When Aslan placed first in her board examinations for internal medicine, the chairman of the examiners, Daniel Danielopolou, congratulated her but lamented that she had bested the male students.
Danielopolou mentored Aslan through her Ph.D. studies and coauthored several of her research papers, assuring their publication in male-dominated journals. She was forced to employ such strategies throughout her career: after she developed her theory of aging and was opening her institute, she found another male colleague to act as director so the enterprise would be accepted by the academic medical community. Things changed as Aslan made her mark on her field of study; as early as 1945, she was invited to serve as professor of cardiology at a medical school in Timisoara, where she was popular with staff and patients alike.
Back at her clinic, Aslan began experimenting with the drug Procain, an early version of Novocaine, which is used by dentists. At the time, Procain was used to treat hardening of the arteries and other vascular ailments. Aslan noticed that patients injected with Procain seemed to improve in multiple ways, finding more energy and achieving a generally heightened sense of well-being. As the results were consistent among her patients, she worked to develop a version of the drug that maximized this beneficial effect.
Supported by Danielopolou and Parhon, Aslan presented her findings to the Romanian Academy of Medicine. The reception was disappointing: academy members were skeptical of her results and demanded at least 25 case studies documenting her results. As Aslan noticed, physician Alois Alzheimer discovered the brain deterioration known as Alzheimer's disease based on one case, and Thomas Hodgkin identified a form of blood cancer that affected the lymph nodes—Hodgkin's Iymphoma—based on seven cases. She took the academy's skepticism in stride and continued her work. Meanwhile, from 1949 and 1952, she headed the physiology department at the Institute of Endocrinology, located in Bucharest.
Aslan convinced Dr. Parhon to collaborate with her in forming the National Institute for Gerontology and Geriatrics, which was established in Bucharest and was funded Nicolae Ceauşescu, general secretary of the Romanian Communist Party. The clinical approaches between the two doctors were similar, and Parhon's prestige would benefit the Institute, winning it the approval of the Romanian Academy of Medicine. With Parhon as director and Aslan as deputy director, the Institute opened in January 1952; two months later, in March, Aslan and Parhon traded positions. Under their joint guidance, the institute grew to include treatment and research facilities. Aslan focused on developing Procain into a more powerful, stable injection called Gero-H3-Aslan, and this was patented in 1957 under the name Gerovital. She also produced a hair lotion, which was manufactured by Farmec.
Word soon got out about Aslan's “wonder drug” Gerovital, and from the late 1950s through the 1970s, her Bucharest clinic was visited by notable people ranging from politicians such as Nikita Khruschev and John F. Kennedy to celebrities such as German film actor Marlene Dietrich. Aslan was invited to present her work at a British medical society and was inundated at her hotel by patients seeking consultation. During the mid-1960s, enthusiasm for her work reached its peak: She was named chair of prophylactic (preventive) medicine by the World Health Organization as well as other honors. Clients continued to flock to Budapest from around the world, making the city a tourist destination for affluent individuals wanting to combat old age.
By the late 1960s, a divide had formed between Aslan's enthusiastic patients and the medical establishment. The British medical community remained unimpressed by the claims associated with Gerovital and insisted on more rigorous experimentation. Ideally, they wanted her to perform a double-blind study in which one group would be given the drug while another was given a placebo. In this way, results could be compared and the efficacy of Gerovital quantified. As it was, outside researchers could not replicate the results Aslan claimed for the drug.
As the interest in Gerovital waned during the 1970s, the field of gerontology and geriatrics changed. So did Romania, as Ceauşescu's totalitarian government struggled with a financial recession by imposing austerity measures and censorship. Now in her 80s, Aslan continued working, and when Romania no longer supported her study of gerontology and geriatrics, she moved her clinic and research center to Germany. While preparing to chair an international conference she had organized for the spring of 1988, she required surgery. On May 19, 1988, at age 91, she died as a result of surgical complications.
In 1982 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the importation of Gervitol to the United States, although the drug continues to be sold for its anti-aging capabilities. Her work continues today at several Aslan Institutes, all operating under the German Aslan company based in Olsberg. The first of these institutes opened in 1989, and their mission is “to conform to the demands of the legacy of Prof. Dr. Ana Aslan and her wish to make the Aslan Original Therapies known worldwide,” according to the Aslan Originaltherapien website. Located in Olsberg and Bad Steben, these facilities offer spa packages promoting health and wellness therapies, including Procaine injections.
British Medical Journal, October, 1997, John Grimley Evans, “Geriatric Medicine: A Brief History,” p. 315.
New York Times, May 29, 1988, Glenn Fowler, “Ana Aslan, Rumanian Specialist on the Aging Process, Dies in 90s.”
Aslan Originaltherapien website, http://www.aslan.info/e/ (August 5, 2016).❑