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 3: From Injection to Ingestion

Carl Djerassi with his assistant, Arelina Gonzalez, 1951

Carl Djerassi with his assistant, Arelina Gonzalez, 1951

Welcome to the third installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. In the previous installment, we learned about the iconoclastic chemist Russell Marker, who figured out how to synthesize large quantities of progesterone — the birth control pill’s active ingredient — from a yam called barbasco that grew wild in Mexico.

In 1949, Russell Marker dropped out of science — “I considered all chemists to be crooks,” he bitterly opined — and a scientist named Carl Djerassi was hired to head the lab at Syntex, the hormone-synthesizing laboratory in Mexico that Marker had co-founded in 1944. Within a few years, Syntex was a major player on the synthetic-hormone scene in Europe and the Americas.

After Luis Miramontes’ successful experiments, all of the elements for Sanger’s “magic pill” were in place.

Although progesterone could be manufactured in large quantities at this time, it could only be given intravenously. Progesterone was being used therapeutically to prevent miscarriage and treat excessively heavy menstrual periods. The lack of alternatives to injections represented a problem for these people — a daily pill would be easier and more convenient than frequent injections. In 1950, Syntex set their sights on the development of a synthetic form of progesterone that was more effective in smaller doses and could be administered orally rather than by intravenous injections. Such a development would be necessary before Margaret Sanger’s dream of a “magic pill” could come true. 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