May 5th, 2010 at 12:09 pm
The father of the oral contraceptive pill, Carl Djerassi, was born in 1923 into a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. He lived in Bulgaria with his parents as a young child and then returned to Vienna with his mother following his parents’ divorce. With the spread of the Nazi regime to Austria in 1938, he returned to Bulgaria to live with his father. In 1939, he immigrated to the United States with his mother.
In the US, Djerassi pursued studies in chemistry and in 1949 was appointed associate director of chemical research at a pharmaceutical company called Syntex in Mexico City. There, he worked on a new synthesis of cortisone. His team later synthesized norethindrone – a progestin-analogue that was effective when taken orally. This became part of the first successful oral contraceptive, the combined oral contraceptive pill (COCP). The COCP became commonly known as the birth-control pill, or simply, the pill.
Deutsche Welle: Before you left Austria, did you have any plans for how your life was going to go?
Carl Djerassi: Before the Nazis came to Austria and I had to flee, I would have expected to be a physician, because both my parents were physicians and I was basically brought up in a doctor’s office.
To move onto the moment when you and your team synthesized the first digestible form of progestin that eventually became the pill – what you were trying to create was not initially concerned with contraception, was it?
Whenever people ask me that – and it’s a very logical question to ask – I cannot answer yes or no, because it’s more complicated than that. I always start with the fact that a lot was known about progesterone at the time. The compound had been isolated in the 30s, synthesized and then used in medicine continuously for the treatment of menstrual irregularities and infertility. But progesterone is not orally active, so it was always given by injection.
At that time, when I worked at this small pharmaceutical company Syntex, we wanted to develop some drugs of our own that we could sell, not only patent, under the name Syntex, rather than just being suppliers to other companies. One of the projects that were selected at the time was to make a compound – a progestin – that had the biological activity of progesterone or better, but that was orally active. And we wanted to do it for uses in medicine, which were menstrual irregularities and infertility. Also, there was someone at the national cancer institute who was interested in possibly using progesterone for cervical cancer.
That progesterone could also be used as a contraceptive was obvious. It was something that an Austrian named Ludwig Haberlandt had already discovered in the 1920s and early 1930s. But you need to remember that at that time there was essentially no interest in contraception in the pharmaceutical industry in the United States or elsewhere, because that was after the war. At that point, millions of people had died and millions of people postponed having a family, so that was not their high priority.