Charles D. Kochakian
Charles Daniel Kochakian (1908-1999) was an important member of the team of scientists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) who helped develop the research facilities of the institution’s Medical Center. A professor of biochemistry and physiology for more than 40 years, Kochakian was a pioneer in the emerging sub-discipline of endocrinology in the 1930s. He is best known, however, for discovering the connection between the male hormone testosterone and muscle mass, the development of anabolic steroids, and for ongoing research on growth hormones and their relation to cancer.
Charles Kochakian Kochakian was born on November 18, 1908, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, the son of Danabed and Haigouhee (Nalbandian) Kochakian, who were immigrants from Armenia; he had four siblings. As an immigrant, Kochakian faced discrimination, despite growing up in the midst of America’s melting-pot era. The young Kochakian showed an aptitude for mathematics and science, an ability to focus intensely, and an interest in how things grow. He earned both a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1930 and a master’s degree in organic chemistry in 1931 from Boston University and a Ph.D. in physiological chemistry from the University of Rochester in 1936. On July 27, 1940, Kochakian married Canadian nurse Irene Armstrong, and they had a son, Charles Pedlar, in 1944.
Little was known about hormones when Kochakian began his graduate research into the nature of synthetic organic compounds in 1931. The knowledge he gained during his time at Boston University laid the groundwork for his doctoral study of protein and energy metabolism at the University of Rochester. He found that artificially increased levels of testosterone produced a positive anabolism, or build-up, of protein and increase of muscular tissue. His research coincided with that of European scientists Adolf Butenandt and Leopold Ruzicka, who had converted cholesterol into a synthetic form of an endogenous steroid hormone called androsterone. Kochakian next replicated the experiments of the Europeans and developed the synthetic compound androstenedione, which, when injected into the dogs, increased their protein anabolism. His results, published in the American Journal of Physiology (1936), earned him a Ph.D. from and a faculty post at Rochester. Most importantly, his work, along with the discoveries of Butenandt and Ruzicka, signified the birth of anabolic steroids. These discoveries, and other research in the field of endocrinology, were spurred in part by the efforts to aid the recovery of people injured in warfare.
In succeeding years, Kochakian tested the application of steroids for possible cancer and diabetes treatments for humans in laboratory animals. During World War II, with grants from the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation and various compounds donated by drug manufacturers, he focused his research on their possible use in the healing the wounds and bones of injured soldiers, although he never actually worked with human subjects. From 1942 to 1953, Kochakian served on a committee organized by the United States Office of Scientific Research and Development that met quarterly to study bone and wound healing. In 1951, Kochakian became head of the biochemistry and endocrinology unit at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Medicine and continued his research into steroids and hormones.
In 1957, Kochakian moved to Birmingham and joined the burgeoning Medical Center at UAB as a professor of physiology and director of experimental endocrinology at the behest of Joseph F. Volker, director of Research and Graduate Studies at UAB. The two men had developed a friendship and mutual respect as fellow doctoral students at the University of Rochester. In addition to teaching duties, Kochakian engaged in basic research, often focusing on steroids, to resolve medical issues facing patients being treated in the university’s clinical departments.
Cancer-related research activities soon became a major focus of the UAB Medical Center. Owing largely to Kochakian’s renown, the American Cancer Society awarded the institution an initial $15,000 grant in 1959 that was administered by a committee chaired by Kochakian. From 1960-70, the funds enabled 275 Alabama high school seniors and college undergraduates to work in the facility’s research laboratories and become acquainted with the Medical Center. A survey conducted in 1977 indicated that a majority of these students had chosen careers in medicine or science, thereby creating a greater awareness of UAB’s role in promoting public health and education.
During the 1960s, Kochakian became increasingly aware of the growing use and abuse of steroids by athletes. As a scientist, he considered it inevitable that with all beneficial scientific discoveries, someone motivated by greed would find perverse uses for them but regarded steroid use by athletes as an ethical, not a scientific, problem. He encouraged sports authorities to work towards separating facts based on empirical evidence from rumors, particularly after steroid abuse accusations that arose during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and Auburn University football coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan were among the leaders in the sporting world with whom he sought dialogue. Although he never advocated steroid use by athletes, he believed they could be used safely under controlled conditions.
Kochakian retired from UAB in 1979 and was granted the title of professor emeritus. In retirement, he continued to conduct research and publish his findings, particularly in the application of technology to steroid research. He also served as a consultant for numerous clinics, television productions, legal firms, and other scientists. His most notable client was the World Wrestling Federation. Kochakian’s ground-breaking discoveries in endocrinology were honored in 1984 and 1989 with awards established in his name by the University of Rochester and the University of Alabama, respectively, to fund research by medical students. Charles Kochakian died on February 12, 1999, in Birmingham.
Cook, Ben. “Former UAB professor is true father of steroids.” Birmingham Post-Herald, February 15, 2005.
Fisher, Virginia. Building On A Vision: A Fifty-Year Retrospective of UAB’s Academic Health Center. Birmingham: University of Alabama at Birmingham, 1995.
———. “Oral History Interview with Dr. Charles D. Kochakian.” University of Alabama at Birmingham Archives, MC 45, folder 2.46.
Holmes, Jack D. L., A History of the University of Alabama Hospitals. Birmingham: University of Alabama in Birmingham Print Shop, 1974.
“Inventor says no regrets.” Decatur Daily, March 21, 1989.
Kochakian, Charles D. How It Was, Anabolic Action of Steroids and Remembrances. Birmingham: University of Alabama School of Medicine, 1984.
Kochakian, Charles D. The Summer Student Program. Birmingham: University of Alabama at Birmingham, 1980.
McWilliams, Tennant S. New Lights in the Valley. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007.