The BALCO scandal and Jose Canseco’s best-selling book Juiced have kept steroids on the front page of the sports section for months. Yet athletes have been pumping themselves up with anabolic steroids for nearly 50 years, long before the days of “the cream” and “the clear.” So, who’s responsible for bringing steroids into the sports world?
The godfather of steroids was a rough-and-tumble Maryland physician named John Bosley Ziegler. Ziegler practiced medicine in Olney, Md. and conducted chemistry research at a company called Ciba Pharmaceuticals. A big, fleshy former Marine who answered to the nickname “Montana Jack,” Ziegler loved to pump iron. During his long sessions at the gym, he befriended several bodybuilders associated with the York (Pa.) Barbell Club.
In the 1950s, York was at the center of American fitness training, and Bob Hoffman was the movement’s spiritual leader. Hoffman, who competed with Joe Weider and Charles Atlas for the title of America’s main muscleman, also ran the York Barbell Co. “I am proud that I am a builder of men,” he wrote in the 1939 book Weight Lifting. The men he built included such famed old-time strongmen as John Grimek, John Davis, and Paul Anderson.
Hoffman figured that Ziegler’s scientific credentials would prove useful in supplementing his bodybuilding theories, and Ziegler soon became a vital part of the York entourage. In 1954, Ziegler went with his York buddies to the World Weightlifting Championships in Vienna, Austria, as the team’s doctor. Ziegler watched as the Soviets hoisted ungodly amounts of steel. Like any red-blooded American, he was leery of the Russians, whose physiques he found suspiciously hairy and outsized. “[S]ome of the competitors, even young ones in their 20s, needed to be catheterized in order to urinate,” he later told the Los Angeles Times.
In vodka veritas, reasoned Ziegler, and he invited the USSR’s team doctor to a local tavern. According to Ziegler, the lubricated Soviet revealed that his lifters were building their muscles with testosterone. Testosterone functions both anabolically—building muscle and stimulating growth—and androgenically—developing sex organs and other sex characteristics. When the body’s natural production is supplemented by pills or injections, users experience both rapid strength gains and hormonal imbalances that wreak androgenic havoc on the body. (Although it has long been alleged that Nazi physicians injected soldiers with testosterone during World War II, there’s no concrete evidence that this is true.)
Upon returning to the United States, Ziegler started administering straight testosterone shots to selected York weightlifters. But these experiments proved unsatisfactory—strength gains were negligible, and the bodybuilders complained that the shots made them feel strange. Ziegler kept tinkering in an attempt to synthesize a substance with testosterone’s strength-building attributes but none of the pesky side effects. In 1958, Ciba Pharmaceuticals unleashed his creation: methandrostenolone, which the company marketed as Dianabol.
Dianabol, which is commonly regarded as one of the world’s first anabolic steroids, was most commonly administered to burn victims and the elderly. The drug’s off-label users were mostly bodybuilders. After testing the new drugs himself to make sure they were safe—yes, Ziegler found, he could urinate without a catheter—the good doctor spread the word to the York Barbell Club.
Bob Hoffman and his bodybuilders were already accustomed to popping supplements. Hoffman made millions peddling a soy-based protein powder called Hi-Proteen, and Barbell Club members were heavy users of the stuff. It didn’t take much persuading for them to give John Ziegler’s pills a try. The results were stark and sudden. By the early 1960s, the York lifters had become the beefiest in the country. Though Bob Hoffman gave all the credit to a new training regimen called isometric contraction, the real secret soon came out. After failing to make any strides using isometric contraction, powerlifter Terry Todd kept pestering his York buddies. “Finally they showed me a small brown bottle that contained 100 five-milligram tablets of Dianabol,” Todd wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1983. ” ‘This is the secret,’ they told me.”
Weightlifters and other athletes clamored for “Doc Ziegler’s mysterious pink pills.” Ziegler himself only prescribed Dianabol in small doses, but iron gamers eager for a competitive edge regularly exceeded his recommendations. Ziegler was horrified by this excess, especially when he examined Dianabol users and found enlarged prostates and atrophied testes. The lifters paid little heed, as John Fair recounts in his recent book Muscletown USA. “What is it with these simple-minded shits?” complained an exasperated Ziegler. “I’m the doctor!”
Fed up with muscleheads, Ziegler parted ways with York in 1967. But Dianabol continued to haunt him. Ziegler suffered from heart disease, a condition he partially ascribed to his experimentation with steroids. By the time of his 1983 death from heart failure, Ziegler came out against his invention. “It is bad enough to have to deal with drug addicts, but now healthy athletes are putting themselves in the same category,” he wrote in the introduction to Bob Goldman’s history of drugs and sports, Death in the Locker Room. “It’s a disgrace. Who plays sports for fun anymore?”