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My time as chairman of BOSTID


International contribution in the development of the pill
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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So we resumed our work with other people, and not with Pincus, and in 1957 the FDA approved both compounds. Ours was called norethindrone, and theirs was called norethynodre, Frank Coulton's compound, for menstrual disorders and infertility, in 1957, and then it was on the market, ours under the trade name Norlutin, and theirs under the trade name Enovid, E-N-O-V-I-D. We didn’t have any marketing organisation, so we had licensed Park Davis, a very large American pharmaceutical company, to market this, and they in fact were the ones who marketed it under the Syntex license, and our patent, but they were a very conservative company, and then as the work continued on the oral contraceptive application, the clinical work, which of course took longer, and the FDA required more things, got cold feet, because they were afraid of a Catholic boycott, and returned the license to Syntex for that application. They only continued it for the menstrual disorder one, and Syntex had to go and chase down a second licensee, and the selection turned out to be a first class one, namely the Ortho division of Johnson & Johnson. Now Ortho is just a division of Johnson & Johnson, who is the largest pharmaceutical company in the world that make a lot of other things as well, including bandages, and things like that, but the Ortho division was entirely dedicated to contraception. They were the main manufacturers of diaphragms, of spermicidal jellies, and so on, so they were boycott-proof, because they were in this business and you couldn’t boycott it. That was probably, also why Johnson & Johnson had a separate division that only dealt with, with women’s issues of this type, so they became the licensee, but had to repeat a bit of the clinical work that Park Davis had already written, because Park Davis was not willing to hand it over. So we lost nearly two years on this, and G.D. Searle therefore came out first on the market, with their oral contraceptive, late in 1960, whereas Syntex, through Park Davis- I’m sorry, through Ortho, came out only- I’ve forgotten- a year, a year and a half later, but things then moved so fast that by 1965 Park Davis had again changed their mind, because there were no boycotts, and again got the licence back, and so on, and Syntex had already started marketing it in its own name, so by the middle of the 1960s the Syntex product, Norlutin, and they had other trade names, Ortho Novum, and so on, became the biggest selling oral contraceptive, much more so than G.D. Searle’s, which had then gone off the market, whereas our substance is still taken by millions of women, although there have been more modifications since that time, and there are a few other very closely related analogues. But that basically is the history of the oral contraceptive development, particularly as far as Syntex is concerned, and I think the Syntex development was not only absolutely crucial, and I think in many respects sensational, but I think even more important, and that’s why I feel strongly about it, and resent it even more, are the attempts to underplay or eliminate it, that this was a Mexican development and not an American one, and people have got again this tendency, like the Russians, the Russians think they’ve always invented something first, and the Americans think so, but in fact it was a not an American development. You know, in started in Austria, if you want to start with Haberlandt, and the chemistry was done in Mexico, and only then some of the subsequent biological work was done in the United States, so it was very much of an international thing. It’s the way science operates, but what is unusual about it, after all, Austria historically was, was in science, one of the powerhouses. You know, around 1900 there was more science and medicine, and so on, in Austria than there was in all of America, so that was historically a more sophisticated country than Mexico, so it should have contributed in this case. It’s something that I think is extraordinary, the first time, almost that a third world country, scientifically speaking, contributes so heavily, and I think that should be remembered, and one should give credit for that, and so that’s why I really belabour this point, which I perhaps wouldn’t belabour so much after- otherwise.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: Enovid, Syntex, Ortho Novum, Norlutin, Austria, Mexico, United States, Gregory Pincus, Frank Colton, Ludwig Haberlandt

Duration: 4 minutes, 41 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008