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

The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 1: Hormones, Our “Chemical Messengers”

Welcome to the first installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill, from our discovery of how hormones work, to the synthesis of these hormones from an inedible wild Mexican yam, to the creation of a pill that changed the world.

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. Indigenous people used it as a fish poison, and traditional Mesoamerican healers used it to treat rheumatism, snakebites, muscular pain, and skin conditions. When the root was fermented in alcohol and put on aching joints, it was believed to work as a pain reliever.

The idea of a birth control pill was born in 1912 when Margaret Sanger dreamed of a “magic pill.”

Barbasco’s medicinal uses might not be surprising, given that scientists derived a chemical from the yam that led to the development of cortisone and oral contraceptives, both of which had sizable impacts on medicine and society. Oral contraceptives would not have been possible without a cheap and abundant source of progesterone, which was easily synthesized from the root after an American chemist, Russell Marker, discovered a process for converting a cholesterol found in barbasco’s roots to progesterone, a key ingredient in the Pill.

In the decades before this chemist’s excursion to Mexico, first-wave feminism was brewing in turn-of-the-century United States, and birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger demanded access to contraception — in 1915, she invented the term “birth control,” and as early as 1912, the idea of a birth control pill had been envisioned — again, by Sanger, who wrote of her hope for a “magic pill.” A nurse, Sanger was spurred to action by the horror of watching women die prematurely after having too many children, while other women died from botched abortions. Continue reading