The Steroid Industry
During this month in 1951, the first oral contraceptive, the steroid hormone norethindrone, developed by Carl Djerassi and co-workers at Syntex.
One research program led by Carl Djerassi focused on the conversion of diosgenin to cortisone. Early in 1949, Philip Hench and Edward Kendall at the Mayo Clinic had reported spectacular results from the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis with cortisone. Newspapers featured stories of crippled arthritics dancing in the streets after therapy. Syntex completed its synthesis of cortisone from diosgenin; however, this achievement immediately was overtaken by another scientific breakthrough.
Syntex also competed with other drug companies in the hunt for an effective oral contraceptive. Because progesterone prevents ovulation during pregnancy, research focused on the discovery of an orally active progesterone mimic. Using expertise obtained in the conversion of testosterone to estradiol and estrone, along with two important leads from the chemical literature, Djerassi’s group designed and, in 1951, synthesized norethindrone, the active ingredient in the first practical oral contraceptive. For many reasons, the first “pill” to be marketed was G. D. Searle and Co.’s norethynodrel, but norethindrone accounted for more than half of the oral contraceptive market in the 1970s.
By the 1950s, Syntex and its competitors in Mexico* were producing more than half the sex hormones sold in the United States. Syntex’s economic success was matched by its scientific reputation, which was boosted by a very liberal publication policy. Contributions made by Syntex accounted for more than 30% of all industrial citations in the Fiesers’ definitive 1959 monograph, Steroids. In 1951, Fortune magazine headlined: “Syntex makes the biggest technological boom ever heard south of the border.”
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Excerpted with permission, National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program