The Mexican man behind the contraceptive pill

After it was distributed in Mexico, the birth rate decreased 70%

Luis Miramontes, the Mexican man behind the contraceptive pill
Luis Miramontes was a Chemical Engineer from the UNAM - Photo: File Photo/EL UNIVERSAL
English 25/08/2019 16:07 Newsroom Mexico City Carmina de la Luz Ramírez Actualizada 16:22
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The famous contraceptive pill was available for sale on August 18, 1960. Without Mexican scientist Luis Miramontes, the birth control pill wouldn't exist as we know it today.

7 children per family

In an article published by a magazine called Population Paper, Manuel Ordorica Mellado, a researcher from the Colmex, mentions that there were 4,000 million people in the world by 1974. In regards to Mexico, the population growth was quite accelerated: 3.5% per year, therefore, the number of Mexicans doubled every 20 years. As a result, the Mexican government had to implement several strategies, including the reforms to the General Population Law, the creation of the National Population Council, and the creation of a birth control program that changed Mexico's population.

The rumor spread through the town, a predominantly rural town in southern Mexico: María Bahena, the local midwife, was promoting a medicine so that women could stop having children. This campaign wasn't a coincidence nor the result of a benevolent decision made by then-President Luis Echeverría, but rather a desperate measure to face an increasing problem: overpopulation.

“I delivered babies and I had already worked with the Mexican Social Security Institute to become a trained traditional midwife, says María. Then they called me again so that I took some courses at the Red Cross, in Mexico City; women from all over the country were there and we became voluntary promoters of birth control.”

– Do you remember how many children did women have back then?

– Here in Tonalapa Sur, each one had around seven or more. I was a rare case because I [used contraceptives] and I had decided to have only three children.

Botany lessons

During Luis Echeverría's government, María Bahena constantly traveled to the city of Iguala, where authorities supplied her with contraceptive pills for free, which she later distributed among women in town. None of them knew the long story behind the pill they took every morning or the role Mexican scientists had played in its creation. In the mid 19th century, chemists predicted the creation of an oral contraceptive based on the increasing knowledge of female physiology but they lacked a starting point. The solutions began to appear in 1930 after three essential findings: the discovery of progesterone; its inhibitory effect on ovulation, and the possibility to synthesize it using a substance called diosgenin, found in the root of plants known as Dioscorea. Although there are around 600 Dioscorea species in the world, there is one that stands out for being rich in diosgenin: the Dioscorea composita, which can be found the tropical forests in the state of Veracruz, in Mexico. In early 1940, a U.S. chemist, Russell Marker, noticed this richness and knew Mexico would become the production center of synthetic progesterone.

Luis Miramontes

A door opened for Marker: the Hormone Laboratories, a Mexican company that produced animal progesterone for the treatment of gynecological disorders. Back then, the business represented profits of up to USD $80 per gram. In 1944, Marker and Hormone Laboratories created the Syntex division, where a few years later, chemists Carl Djerassi and George Rosenkrantz would lead the work of a brilliant student, Luis Ernesto Miramontes Cárdenas. The young man from the state of Nayarit was only 26 years old and was finishing his undergraduate thesis project in chemical engineering at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, UNAM.

On October 15, 1951, Luis Miramontes synthesized the substance known as norethisterone, the active ingredient used to create the first effective and safe oral contraceptive. Miramontes' work turned him into the first Mexican to appear on the USA Inventors Hall of Fame.

Made in Mexico?

María Bahena doesn't remember the name or the formula of the drug she gave to the women in her town. She doesn't remember having heard of Luis Miramontes either but she feels as if it had been yesterday when she organized meetings at her home to explain how the contraceptive pill worked and how it should be used.

– Did you know that that drug would haven't been possible without the participation of Mexican scientists?

– No. I always thought it was a U.S. invention but now I'm glad to know it was something good we did in Mexico.

Technically, María is right. People often think that the contraceptive pill was a Mexican innovation but Miramontes himself said: “I'm not the inventor of the contraceptive pill, the inventor was Gregory Pincus, who I meet and was friends with; I am the discoverer of the chemical compound that produced said pill. Some say I am the father of the pill, not the inventor.”

Enovid, the first contraceptive pill

A hormonal contraceptive fulfills its task by preventing ovulation because the pill was produced using progesterone, for example, norethisterone, which was synthesized by Luis Miramontes. Nevertheless, this type of formulas have a disadvantage: they often cause bleeding, therefore, since 1951, U.S. physiologist Gregory Pincus and obstetrician John Rock, who were motivated by activist Margaret Sanger and financially supported by Katherine Dexter, the McCormick heiress, started to experiment with different formulas. In 1965, they patented the Enovid formula, the first contraceptive pill. Later, on August 18, 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved it for the treatment of menstrual disorders and by 1961, it could be used as a contraceptive.

According to Dr. Josefina Lira Plascencia, the president of the Mexican College of Experts in Gynecology and Obstetrics (COMEGO), “Pincus and Rock developed the foundation of all the combined oral contraceptives created until now; they found that progesterone would inhibit ovulation and if estrogen was added, it would give stability to the endometrium so that there is no bleeding.” In regards to the effectiveness of these type of drugs, Lira Plascencia explained that the Pearl Index evaluates the failures of contraceptive methods according to the number of pregnancies for every 100 users:

“When women use the combined pill properly, the chances of failure are 0.03%, with the advantage that this is a reversible method; in contrast with a permanent and surgical method called tubal ligation, which presents a failure of 0.15%.”

The golden age

Josefina Lira Plascencia says that the oral contraceptive would have been impossible with the contributions made by Luis Miramontes: “maybe Pincus and Rock would have never found the combined formula.” According to an article written by Lara Marks, from the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, in 1966, over 100 million women all over the world took the contraceptive pill every year. This caused a higher demand of the active ingredients, which also caused economic revenue and inspired new scientific researches. In the case of Mexico, you can still listen to anecdotes as the Science Faculty at the UNAM about how the search for barbasco benefited botany. Biologists such as Faustino Miranda, Mario Sousa Sánchez, and José Sarukhán obtained resources to explore the Mexican tropical forests between 1958 and 1967 and took the opportunity to describe the great biodiversity of the country. Chemical sciences also benefited during those times. For example, after Luis Miramontes synthesized the substance that was key for the creation of the combined oral contraceptive pill, the Syntex lab supported the consolidation of the UNAM's Chemistry Institute, which later became one of the most important research centers in the country. Since then, research in Mexico has never had such a productive period.

Social innovation

“A small pill can have the same effect as the atomic bomb,” said Newsweek in 1999 after it surveyed 80 scientists to determine which were the 10 most important inventions in the last 2,000 years. That same year, The Economist named the contraceptive pill as the most important scientific contribution of the 20th century. Also, it is not only the most consumed drug in the world but also the only drug designed to be administered in healthy people for long periods of time.

Talking about the different stages if its development is to talk about the history of science and technology, as it took place at the same time as the space race and the creation of other inventions such as aspirin and TV. Perhaps the most relevant aspect of the contraceptive pill is that it gave rise to social innovation phenomenons, that is, it allowed new ways of organizing and behaving collectively. Also, some experts say that it sparked the sexual revolution and that it incorporated more women to the labor market. In Mexico, it became part of a population policy that lasted several decades and lowered childbirth up to 70% and the growth rate was of 1%, on average, every woman had 2.21 children. María Bahena was a witness: “Women in the community never stopped getting their pills; sometimes it was their husbands who went to get them. Later, I realized they were having fewer children; I assisted fewer childbirths until I quit the trade one day. But it's OK because I helped women to plan their families.”


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