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