Growth and Growth Hormone through the Ages: Art and Science

Author Department


Document Type

Article, Peer-reviewed

Publication Date



Background: People have long been fascinated with the size and growth of living things, from the giants of classic mythology and art to the little people who also have appeared in classical art, as well as the courts of European monarchs, and were exploited in "shows." Serious medical evaluation began in the late 19th century with the description of acromegaly and its association with pituitary tumors. In the early 20th century, multiple investigators attempted to extract a growth-promoting factor from the anterior pituitary and then, over the decades, to purify it and distinguish it from other anterior pituitary hormones. With relatively pure growth hormone (GH), its biological activity in growth promotion and as a metabolic hormone were studied, and species specificity became apparent: primate GH was the only GH active in man. Human GH was prepared from cadaveric pituitaries and distributed by the NIH to treat children with GH deficiency, but there was never enough pituitary hGH for all of the children who required it. When Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease was found in some patients who received pituitary GH, the production and FDA approval of biosynthetic hGH dramatically accelerated. With a large supply, one could treat those who were GH deficient and test its efficacy in other causes of short stature; longer acting versions of hGH have now been developed, tested, and in a few instances received FDA approval.

Summary: It has been a long journey from the description of over- and underproduction of GH in animals to the production and clinical use of the biosynthetic hormones.

Key messages: The efforts of basic scientists led to the extraction and purification of GH. Clinical scientists have expanded the appropriate use of hGH for short children with conditions in addition to GH deficiency.

Keywords: Bioassay; Growth; Growth hormone; Hypopituitarism; Immunoassay.