Over the years, there have been many scientists to make major discoveries while calling the Nittany Valley home. Why, in 1974 a surgeon and two Penn State engineers developed the world’s first long-life, rechargeable heart pacemaker. And, over a 30-year period beginning in 1946, a dairy scientist perfected commercially viable artificial insemination techniques for dairy cattle, leading to more than $600 million worth of increased food production and cost savings worldwide.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that a Penn State professor played a major role in the creation of the birth control pill, used by an estimated 11.2 million women in the United States. While at Penn State, Russell Marker discovered in the late 1930s the basic chemistry underlying the commercial production of steroidal hormones and birth control pills. His work led to the large-scale preparation of the pregnancy hormone progesterone.
Thomas Wartik, then dean emeritus of the Eberly College of Science, is quoted as saying Marker arguably had as profound an impact on the course of human events as anyone now alive.
“The world’s population would now be larger by literally tens of millions, especially in the poorer countries such as lndia, were it not for the contraceptive pill that is to this day being produced by the steroid chemistry he developed,” Wartik said.
Marker was born March 12, 1902 on a small farm near Hagerstown, Maryland. Even from a young age, Marker loved science, especially chemistry, and wanted to study the subject when he was older. His father, however, wanted him to stay home and work as a farmer.
At the age of 17, Marker defied his father by enrolling at the University of Maryland, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry. Marker did not think it was necessary to obtain a Ph.D before working in the field.
His first job was with the Ethyl Corporation, where he helped invent the octane-rating system for gasoline, now in use at every U.S. gas station. From Ethyl he moved to the Rockefeller Institute, where he developed an analytical procedure known as optical rotatory dispersion, which is used in investigations of molecular structure. He wanted to take up the study of steroidal hormones but was denied in 1934.
As this was a subject he wanted to pursue, he left Rockefeller to accept a faculty position at Penn State in 1935. The dean of the School of Chemistry and Physics had only an $1,800 fellowship, a significant cut from his Rockefeller salary, available to pay Marker.
“As there were no restrictions imposed on the type of research I did, I accepted this,” Marker wrote in an autobiographical article.
Marker spent his first year at Penn State working alone and repeating the work of European scientists to “get the feel of steroidal chemistry.” At the time, the importance of progesterone had been discovered but scientists struggled to develop large quantities.
He was convinced inexpensive steroids could be produced using plants, so he spent years studying sapogenin, a white crystalline compound found in many plants. He developed a method called Marker Degradation, which converted and reshaped a sapogenin molecule into one identical in structure to progesterone. The solution was to heat the compound at 200 degrees for 24 hours in a sealed tube with acetic anhydrid.
After this major development, Marker began an intensive search for sapogenins with the appropriate structures and sources of supply to use as starting material. The sapogenin called diosgenin especially intrigued Marker because it contained a double bond in its ring structure. After obtaining a small sample, he converted it to progesterone using the same technique, the Marker Degradation.
His success led Marker to seek a large supply of disogenin. While reading a botany book, Marker learned that the Dioscorea plant grew in Mexico. Thinking of its abundance in Mexico, Marker began to ponder commercialization.
Already having published 160 scientific papers based on his work done at Penn State, he resigned from the university and left for Mexico in 1944.
He perused the Mexico City telephone book and found a promising answer — Laboratorios Hormona. Marker brought with him an amount of progesterone that equaled half of the world’s annual production at the time. The two partners at Laboratorios Hormona quickly agreed to include Marker in their plans to form a new fine-chemicals firm and produce human steroid hormones.
The partners named the new company Syntex Inc., which remained one of the largest pharmaceutical operations in the world for decades. Marker soon left Syntex to commission Mexican-made replicas of antique European silver works.
As noted by three biographers, Marker soon became known as the “forgotten man of chemistry.” It wasn’t until 1969 that Marker was awarded for his scientific achievements — the Mexican Chemical Society presented him with a special award at an international symposium in Mexico City. Carl Djerassi, the chemical father of the birth control pill, noted Marker’s important developments in his book, The Politics of Contraception, and in articles such as “The Making of the Pill” in Science 74.
Marker was named an honorary alumnus by Penn State. In his and his late wife’s honor, the Russell and Mildred Marker Professorship of Natural Products Chemistry was founded. The Marker Lectures were established in 1984 through a gift from the scientist, allowing the college to present annual lectures that continue to this day in astronomy and astrophysics, the chemical sciences, evolutionary biology, genetic engineering, the mathematical sciences, and physics.
He retired in State College, where he resided until he died on March 5, 1995 at the age of 92 due to complications from a hip fracture.
Marker is remembered in the field of chemistry for his major contributions, most importantly the Marker Degradation, an important step in the commercial production of all steroidal hormones, including progesterone, cortisone, and the birth control pill. But he remained humble in the face of his accomplishments, insisting he was just a man who accomplished his goals.