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 5: Clinical Trials

Gregory Pincus, Min-Chueh Chang, and John Rock, three scientists employed by Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick to develop the birth control pill.

Gregory Pincus, Min-Chueh Chang, and John Rock were hired by Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick to develop the birth control pill.

Welcome to the fifth installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. In the previous installment, Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick envisioned and bankrolled the development of the birth control pill. Now it had to be tested in large-scale trials.

John Rock, Gregory Pincus, and Min-Chueh Chang had collaborated in the Pill’s development; now it was time to conduct clinical trials. The first study observed 60 women, some of whom were infertility patients while others were nurses. These small trials involved daily temperature readings, vaginal smears, and urine samples, as well as monthly endometrial biopsies. Although the initial results seemed promising, the sample size was small and few of the subjects complied with the protocol.


The approval of the Pill in 1960 marked a turning point in our history.


More test subjects were needed. At this point, historians’ accounts differ. Elaine Tyler May claims that, unable to locate an acceptable pool of volunteers, the researchers tested the Pill on subjects who could not give their consent, such as psychiatric patients. According to Bernard Asbell, however, Rock was scrupulous when it came to informed consent, despite it not being a legal requirement — or even much of a concept at all at this time in history.

Willing participants notwithstanding, conducting such trials in the United States posed a challenge, due to laws against contraception. So the first large-scale clinical trials were conducted in Puerto Rico in 1956. Puerto Rico was densely populated and there was a high demand for alternatives to permanent sterilization, which was widespread on the island due to funding from a wealthy eugenicist named Clarence Gamble, who advocated sterilization for the world’s poor. The clinical trials in Puerto Rico were conducted by Drs. Edris Rice-Wray and Adaline Sattherthwaite; the brand of birth control pill tested was named Enovid. Volunteers were so easy to come by that some clinics had waiting lists. Continue reading

The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 4: Margaret Sanger’s “Magic Pill”

Katharine McCormick

Katharine McCormick

Welcome to the fourth installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. In the previous installment, progesterone, the birth control pill’s active ingredient, could only be administered intravenously. Scientists working in Mexico figured out how to alter its chemical structure so that progesterone would be active when taken orally.

Katharine McCormick was born into a moneyed family and was, in 1904, the second female graduated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After receiving her degree in biology, she married a wealthy man, but shortly into the marriage she gained control of her husband’s estate due to his illness. She put a lot of this money to good use: In the 1920s, she aided Margaret Sanger’s efforts to smuggle diaphragms into the country.


Katharine McCormick, a philanthropist and one of the first scientifically trained women, provided early funding for the Pill.


Her involvement with Sanger didn’t end there; indeed, both Sanger and McCormick had a lot in common, despite Sanger’s working-class childhood and McCormick’s privileged upbringing. According to historian Elaine Tyler May, McCormick and Sanger both had “a tremendous faith in the possibility of science,” and Sanger “believed that science held the key to contraception and to women’s emancipation.” Back in the ’20s, Sanger wrote:

Science must make woman the owner, the mistress of herself. Science, the only possible savior of mankind, must put it in the power of woman to decide for herself whether she will or will not become a mother.

In 1950, McCormick again joined forces with Sanger. In the mid-’40s, after a countrywide tour of family-planning clinics, Sanger had come to the conclusion that the diaphragm was not an adequate form of birth control, revitalizing her hope for a “magic pill.” Neither pharmaceutical companies nor the government wanted to invest in contraceptive research, considering it a “disreputable” area of study, so Sanger hatched a scheme to bankroll the independent development of an oral contraceptive. At Sanger’s behest, McCormick provided the lion’s share of funding for the project — more than $2 million (compared to the value of a dollar in the year 2000, that would be about the equivalent of $12 million). Sanger and McCormick tapped Gregory Pincus to conduct the research. McCormick, thanks to her education in biology, oversaw the research in addition to funding it. Continue reading

Pro-Choice Book Club: Histories of Oral Contraceptives

Hormonal birth control has an incredible history that stretches back almost a century, when Margaret Sanger wrote of her dream of a “magic pill” in 1912. In the ensuing decades, scientists were busy piecing together the complex system of the body’s “chemical messengers,” hormones, and when they learned how to synthesize them in the ’40s, Sanger’s dream was but a few steps away from being fulfilled. Three engaging accounts of the Pill’s development — The Pill: A Biography of the Drug That Changed the World by Bernard Asbell (1995), America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation by Elaine Tyler May (2010), and Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill by Gabriela Soto Laveaga (2009) — contain some overlap, while offering different perspectives.

Each author tells the inspiring story of Russell Marker, the chemist who first finagled progesterone from a wild-growing Mexican yam. Despite a near lack of support from pharmaceutical companies and the scientific community, he traveled to rural Mexico on a hunch — and ended up co-founding a laboratory that became the world’s top hormone supplier for the next few decades. Before Marker formulated a way to synthesize hormones in abundance, they were derived from slaughterhouse byproducts and were prohibitively expensive. Marker’s experiments enabled further medical research in hormones, and progesterone was soon used not only in oral contraceptives, but as a precursor for other medications such as cortisone.

While Carl Djerassi is often credited as the “father of the Pill,” both Asbell and May tip their hats to Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick, the Pill’s “mothers.” These two women also have fascinating biographies. As a nurse in the early twentieth century, Sanger was acquainted with the horrors that arose when women did not have control over their fertility. Many of her patients became infected or even died as the result of illegal or self-induced abortions, which motivated Sanger to become an activist for contraception’s legalization — an avocation that saw her illegally smuggling diaphragms into the country and serving time in jail after opening a family-planning clinic in Brooklyn. Continue reading