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Heidi Kingstone

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What Happened to the Father of the Pill? Whitewashed Out of History...

Posted: 05/27/10 02:03 PM ET

For the last 50 years Carl Djerassi has been known as the father of the birth control pill, which has its half century anniversary this year. Djerassi was the first man to synthesize the oral contraceptive. So it was with some interest that I read the Time cover story on the pill. As I read it, I became curiouser and curiouser. Nowhere in the piece was there any mention of Djerassi.

I went to interview Djerassi a few years ago and have kept in touch so I contacted him and asked him if he had seen the article. Not being a Time reader, he hadn't.

He eventually wrote an excellent letter to the magazine, published below, which the magazine decided not to print. It makes you wonder. If there could be such a glaring inaccuracy in this cover story, which they refused to acknowledged, you can't help but wonder ...

May 2, 2010 Vienna

Your feature article "The Pill at 50" contains two extraordinary omissions -- namely who first proposed an oral contraceptive for women and what "the Pill" actually constitutes.

The article states "The idea of a hormonal approach to birth control had been around for years" without stating that it was Ludwig Haberlandt of the University of Innsbruck who in the 1920's with support of the Rockefeller Foundation first demonstrated experimentally and published that the natural female hormone, progesterone, then solely available from glandular extracts, was nature's contraceptive (by preventing further ovulation during pregnancy) and that it should be used as a contraceptive, specifically in pill form. The opposition to his ideas was so pronounced that he committed suicide in 1932. Yet even if he had lived and pursued his work with pure progesterone, he would have found that it would not have worked since progesterone is not orally effective and would require daily injections. Pincus and Rock, the two Americans defined as the fathers of the Pill in your article never cited his work, which is no reason for Time to perpetuate that injustice.

Your article continues: "He [Pincus] learned... that injections of progesterone, which chemists in Mexico had been able to synthesize from wild yams, could block in 1956 Rock and Pincus conducted clinical trials in Puerto Rico, where many women were desperate for some better means of birth control. The Pill proved effective at blocking ovulation and was approved for the treatment of "female disorders" in 1957."

But what Pill is your article talking about? Progesterone? If so, this is pure nonsense. What it does not state is that chemists at a small Mexican pharmaceutical company, Syntex, S.A., first synthesized an orally active progestational steroid, named norethindrone, which does not exist in nature and that they supplied Pincus with this steroid for further biological work. One and one-half years after the first publication by the Syntex group, chemists at G.D. Searle -- a company for which Pincus consulted, synthesized a close relative, norethynodrel, which, as shown by Pincus -- is largely converted in the stomach into norethindrone. Both Syntex's norethindrone and Searle's norethynodrel were approved in 1957 by the FDA for the treatment of menstrual disorders. Even today, norethindrone, though not norethynodrel, is still used by millions of women as an oral contraceptive.

None of Pincus's and Rock's work would have been possible without the initial chemical breakthrough in Mexico on deliberately synthesizing an orally effective progestin -- an achievement which was recognized by the National Medal of Science in 1973 in the White House and in 1978 by inclusion of Syntex's norethindrone as the first ever drug in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The year 2011 will be the international Year of Chemistry and Time's total disregard of the fundamental and indispensable chemical contribution to the Pill is a good example of the sort of journalistic chemophobia and chemical illiteracy that merits correction.

--Carl Djerassi

Professor of Chemistry emeritus, Stanford University

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