The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 6: Los Campesinos

Welcome to the final installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. In earlier installments, we learned how chemists were able to extract a chemical from a wild yam called barbasco and convert it into progesterone, the active ingredient in the Pill.

In 1960, the FDA approved oral contraceptives for marketing. At this time, more than 2 million Americans were already using the Pill — and more than 100,000 Mexican campesinos (a Spanish word for peasants) were harvesting barbasco, the wild yam necessary for its production. By 1974, 125,000 Mexicans were collecting and selling barbasco. Every week, during the barbasco trade’s peak, an excess of 10 tons of the plant were removed from tropical Mexico.


Until the barbasco supply started to dwindle in the 1970s, Mexico enjoyed prominence as the world’s supplier of progesterone.


Though they were paid subsistence-level wages for their labors (half a peso per kilo of dried root), and the work itself was dangerous and backbreaking, they were putting Mexico on the map in the scientific community. After establishing a hormone synthesis industry in Mexico, the European stranglehold on hormones was loosened and the price of progesterone plummeted from $80 per gram to less than a dollar per gram. By 1954, Syntex, a Mexican laboratory, was the largest producer of steroids in the world, having usurped Europe’s monopoly.

Scientists depended on the campesinos’ knowledge of soil conditions and growth cycles, as well as their ability to differentiate between different species of yams. The campesinos relied on their knowledge of weather patterns, differences in root coloration, and size variations to determine when they could dig up roots with the highest concentrations of sapogenin, the chemical that was converted into progesterone in the laboratory. Over the decades, the campesinos slowly gained an education in organic chemistry. Continue reading

Mary Peace Douglas: “A Tender Heart and a Real Fighter”

The struggle for reproductive rights in Arizona has a history that stretches back to Margaret Sanger’s involvement with Clinica Para Las Madres, Planned Parenthood’s 1930s precursor in Tucson. Sanger and the other founders of Tucson’s first family planning clinic were brave activists with fierce convictions, and over the decades, the movement saw an influx of fighters whose work was defined by their passion and dedication.

Mary Peace Douglas, who became an active participant in Southern Arizona’s civil life when she moved to the Sonoita Valley more than 65 years ago, was one of those fighters. In the years that she worked for Planned Parenthood’s Tucson affiliate, Mary Peace Douglas made a name for herself as an advocate for reproductive freedom who had a remarkable resolve and spirit that breathed life into the movement.


In addition to the family and friends who remember her fondly, Mary Peace Douglas leaves behind a legacy of having changed Arizona for the better.


Originally from the East Coast, Mary Peace was born to a mother who had also been active with Planned Parenthood during the organization’s early years — meaning that she was involved with Planned Parenthood “from age zero,” as her colleague and cousin Dorothy Sturges puts it. After receiving a high school and junior college education in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Mary Peace moved out west to Southern Arizona, where she made her mark on the struggle for family planning in the region.

Earlier this year, on February 1, Mary Peace passed away at the age of 87. During her life she was a pioneering fighter for reproductive rights and helped build Planned Parenthood Arizona into what it is today. Beginning in the late 1960s, she served a long tenure on Planned Parenthood Center of Tucson’s board of directors, and later was hired to work in development, where she quickly proved she could be an effective fundraiser. Additionally, she spent time serving on the national board of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. 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

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

Mexico, the United States, and HIV: It’s Complicated

from http://ipv6.dhs.gov/journal/leadership/2008/10/state-of-immigration.htmlDuring my last semester of college, I took an Introduction to Chicana Studies class in which I read a lot about HIV transmission between the United States and Mexico. In the book we used, Latina Activists Across Borders, activists in Michoacán argue that women are infected with HIV by men who migrate to the United States and then bring it back to Mexico. While there is a lot of truth to that, the way our two countries interact on this issue is a little bit more complicated.


We need to have a more complex conversation about migration and HIV/AIDS than the one we’re having.


Often, HIV is constructed as something that is spread between “immoral” people. When it comes to transnational transmission, the country the disease comes from is seen as “immoral” or “dirty.” In the United States, we have just as many beliefs about HIV coming into the country from Mexico as the other way around. But who is right?

The answer — both/neither. Less than 1 percent of the adult Mexican population is HIV positive — that’s half the rate in the United States. According to USAID, population mobility is a big factor in HIV transmission. In Tijuana and Juarez, where HIV/AIDS rates are the highest, a large part of the population comes from South America and southern parts of Mexico. In Zacatecas and Michoacán, more than 1 in 5 people who has AIDS had lived in the United States prior to infection. Continue reading

Margaret Sanger in Tucson: Still Going Headstrong

Margaret Sanger 1947Throughout her quasi-retirement in Tucson, Margaret Sanger was still committed to the cause that propelled her into the national spotlight in the first place. In Tucson, she arranged to debate the Bishop of Arizona to address “the morality of birth control” – they spoke on different nights, however, since neither wanted to be on stage with the other.

William Mathews, editor of the Arizona Star, wrote: “Who do these women think they are to take on the Bishop of Arizona?” Apparently it was still the prevailing sentiment that a woman’s place was in the home, and despite all the socializing and entertaining Sanger did in her own life, she wasn’t shy about returning to the public sphere.

She wasn’t shy about defying authority either. One example of this facet of her personality was related by one of her biographers. Attempting to cross into the United States from Nogales, Mexico, the border inspector informed Sanger that she could not enter the country without having the required vaccination. Thinking this requirement unnecessary, she tried to refuse, but the inspector was insistent. She relented, and he administered the injection, but immediately after crossing the border, in full sight of the inspector, she sucked the vaccine from the injection site, grinning at him mischievously.  Continue reading