Celebrating Mexico’s Contributions to the Birth Control Pill

September 15 to October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month. We’re celebrating by shining the spotlight on Mexico’s role in developing the birth control pill, one of the most important medical breakthroughs of the 20th century.

Humanity cannot fully unlock its potential until we release the bonds of oppression from all marginalized groups.

Underneath the surface of a large swath of Southern Mexico’s jungles lay the enormous roots of a wild yam, Dioscorea composita, known locally as barbasco. Mostly it was considered a nuisance, as it could get in the way of subsistence agriculture, but it did have its uses in traditional medicine — and it would change history forever when scientists figured out how to wrest valuable chemical compounds from it, a discovery that led directly to the development of the birth control pill.

Russell Marker. Image: Penn State University ArchivesIn the 1940s, hormones held an untapped potential for research, but there was no cost-effective method of producing large quantities of them — including progesterone, the Pill’s essential ingredient. An American chemist named Russell Marker set out to find a way to synthesize progesterone in abundance, hypothesizing that plants from the genus Dioscorea, which includes yams and agaves, would be a good source for starting material. After some research, he set his sights on wild-growing yams that were found only in Mexico.

Marker’s hunch brought him south of the U.S. border, where locals helped him find and gather these yams, enabling him to develop a method for synthesizing large batches of progesterone — more than had ever been in one place. When pharmaceutical companies would not invest in further research in Mexico, Marker relocated to Mexico City and put his money where his mouth was. In January 1944, he co-founded a lab named Syntex — a portmanteau of “synthesis” and “Mexico” — devoted to finagling hormones from wild Mexican yams. That yam was called barbasco by the indigenous population, and it was the industry’s choice for the raw material in hormone synthesis. Continue reading

The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 2: Barbasco and the Roots of Hormonal Contraception

Russell Marker. Image: Penn State University Archives

Russell Marker. Image: Penn State University Archives

Welcome to the second installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. Previously, we learned about the role a sex hormone called progesterone plays in inhibiting ovulation. Scientists had no easy way to isolate significant amounts of this chemical and wanted to find a quick and inexpensive method for synthesizing large quantities of progesterone.

Russell Marker was born to Maryland sharecroppers in 1903. Hoping to escape rural life, Marker was one of only two students in his junior-high class to attend high school. He graduated in three years and enrolled at the University of Maryland, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry. He needed one more class to receive his doctorate, but refused to take it, believing he had already mastered his chosen subject, organic chemistry. He was only interested in working in the lab and thought the required course would be a waste of his time. (The university did eventually award him an honorary doctorate in 1987.)

A wild-growing yam in Mexico provided chemicals that could be refined into progesterone, the active ingredient in the Pill.

At the time, the scientific community was abuzz with discoveries being made about hormones. They held tremendous potential for research, but scientists couldn’t figure out how to isolate large quantities of them for study. Up for a challenge, Marker set out to find a way to synthesize one hormone, called progesterone, in abundance. He hypothesized that plants from the genus Dioscorea, which includes yams and agaves, would be cheap sources of steroid hormones. Marker was specifically hoping to find plants rich in sapogenins, which are chemically similar to cholesterol. Continue reading