Date
22 November 2017
Carl Djerrasi developed antihistamines, founded biomedical companies, taught advanced chemistry and wrote novels. Photo: The Guardian
Carl Djerrasi developed antihistamines, founded biomedical companies, taught advanced chemistry and wrote novels. Photo: The Guardian

Father of birth control pill dies, 91

Carl Djerassi, known as the father of the birth control pill, has died. He was 91.

Djerrasi died of complications from cancer in his San Francisco home, the Guardian reported Monday, citing Stanford University spokesman Dan Stober.

One of the most productive scientists of his time, Djerrasi developed antihistamines, founded biomedical companies, taught advanced chemistry and wrote novels.

Producing the first synthesis of an oral contraceptive pill in 1951 was not his only accomplishment. For many, it was his greatest achievement, an event now seen as one of the key episodes in 20th century social and biomedical, history.

Djerassi was honoured globally for his work, which changed the lives of many women and their families and altered the nature of human reproduction in ways that could not be foreseen at the time.

In his book This Man’s Pill, published on the 50th anniversary of that 1951 discovery, Djerassi saw the development of the pill as an outcome of postwar technological euphoria and was convinced that it could not have happened in today’s climate.

As with many scientific discoveries, the initial research that led to the pill was focused on something entirely different.

Working with a small team in Mexico City for the pharmaceutical company Syntex, Djerassi, still in his 20s, was using locally grown yams to produce cortisone in the search for a wonder drug for arthritis.

At that time, production of cortisone depended on slaughterhouse animals for supply, so was expensive and difficult to build from scratch.

Djerassi decided to go for partial synthesis using diosgenin, found in Mexico’s wild inedible yams, as starting material. It turned out that diosgenin can also be used to prepare progestogen, the synthetic version of the female sex hormone.

When Djerassi accomplished the first synthesis of a steroidal oral contraceptive in October 1951, he sent the substance to a number of endocrinologists, including Gregory Pincus.

Two years later, Pincus discovered that it worked in animals; in 1954 the Harvard gynaecologist John Rock and his colleagues carried out a small-scale study that demonstrated it was effective in humans, a fact confirmed by Pincus’s major human trial mounted in Puerto Rico in 1956.

The US Food and Drug Administration authorised marketing of the steroids for limited use in 1957 and three years later licensed Enovid, the first birth-control pill.

Djerassi was born in Vienna, the son of Samuel Djerassi, a dermatologist and sexual health specialist, and Alice Friedmann, a dentist and physician.

He and his mother were two of the many Jews who escaped from the city as the Nazis arrived in 1938, ending up in the US the following year. His father did not make the journey until 1949.

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RA

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