Scientific societies honor creation of the Mexican steroid hormone industry

November 18, 1999

Chemistry societies in the United States and Mexico will designate the creation of the Mexican steroid industry an International Historic Chemical Landmark in a ceremony Dec. 2 in Mexico City. The ceremony will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the Presidential Office of the Mexican Chemical Society, located at Barranca del Muerto #26, Col. Crédito Constructor, Delegación Benito Juárez, México, D.F.

The steroid industry grew out of American-born chemist Russell Marker's discovery of a way to mass-produce the hormone progesterone. Marker co-founded the Syntex, S.A. drug company in Mexico City, which produced steroid hormones. Marker's work later led to the wide availability of oral contraceptives and cortisone, a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.

Marker's work and the Mexican steroid hormone industry drastically reduced the cost of synthesizing progesterone. By the 1950s, over half of the sex hormones sold in the United States were produced in Mexico, and could be traced to techniques devised by Marker. Using some of Marker's methods, Carl Djerassi developed the first oral contraceptive in 1951 at Syntex.

In 1938, Marker proposed a new molecular structure of the plant steroid sarsasapogenin, isolated from sarsparilla. He manipulated this structure, using a chemical reaction sequence known as "degradation," to yield progesterone. The process is now known as the Marker Degradation.

Marker dropped out of public life in the 1950s, re-emerging to accept awards from the Mexican Chemical Society in 1969 and the Chemical Congress of North America in 1975, among others. He created an endowed professorship and several endowed lecture series at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Maryland before his death in 1995.

The inscription on the plaque to be presented to the Mexican Chemical Society by the American Chemical Society reads:

En 1944 en el sitio de la fundación de Syntex, S.A. en la ciudad de México, el químico Russell E. Marker del Colegio del Estado de Pennsylvania, logró la primer conversión industrial de diosgenina (aislada de una especie mexicana de Dioscorea) a progesterona, la hormona de la preñez, mediante reacciones químicas conocidas actualmente como la "Degradación Marker". Marker, junto con Emeric Somlo y Federico A. Lehmann, de los Laboratorios Hormona, fundaron la nueva compañía. Esta progesterona de bajo costo, eventualmente llegó a ser el precursor preferido en la preparación industrial de cortisona, la hormona anti-inflamatoria. En 1951 los investigadores de Syntex sintetizaron el primer contraceptivo de uso oral a partir del material inicial de Marker. Así, Syntex y sus competidores en México llegaron a ser una poderosa fuerza internacional en el desarrollo de fármacos de esteroides.
A nonprofit organization with a membership of nearly 159,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society publishes scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences, and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio. (

American Chemical Society

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