When Mexican scientist Luis Miramontes signed his lab notebook on October 15, 1951, he didn’t know he was documenting the story.
That day, he made a new molecule, norethindrone. Derived from the Mexican wild yam that locals call barbasco, norethindrone became one of the first active ingredients in birth control pills. “The Pill” put women in control of when to have children and allowed both men and women to enjoy sex without the possibility of reproduction, paving the way for radical social change.
The Miramontes notebook page has been immortalized in books and articles by his former supervisor, Carl Djerassi, as well as journalists. Yet compared to Djerassi and others who contributed to the pill, Miramontes has hardly been recognized, says Gabriela Soto Laveaga, historian of science at Harvard University and author of Jungle labs: Mexican peasants, national projects and pill making. “It is only recently that there has been even talk of Miramontes.”
Luis Ernesto Miramontes Cárdenas was born in 1925, the day after the Mexican Revolution. He grew up surrounded by strong female role models, including his aunt María Dolores Cárdenas Aréchiga, once a major in Pancho Villa’s army who later joined the army of teachers bringing education to the remotest corners of Mexico. The young Miramontes decided to pursue a career in the sciences. In the late 1940s, he was studying chemical engineering in Mexico City.
It was a good time and a good place to be a skilled molecule maker. Mexican company Syntex was exploding global competition in the production of low-cost hormones to treat disease. The reason was the Mexican yam, Dioscorea mexicana, which contained large amounts of a precursor that could be used to make several hormones. In 1949, Miramontes was part of a group of researchers assigned to Syntex projects under an agreement with the National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM. Djerassi, an Austrian-born American chemist, “liked the way I worked,” Miramontes said in an interview in 2004. “If he wanted something to go right or be checked, he would give me the job.
Progesterone was just such a challenge. Doctors used it to prevent certain types of miscarriages and more, but it had to be injected to work. Djerassi and Syntex director George Rosenkranz wanted a progesterone pill. Following the lead of other scientists, Syntex made a modified progesterone derived from yam, designed to survive in the digestive tract and have more biological activity than progesterone. It was norethindrone. Miramontes took the final step of their recipe, adding a crucial carbon-carbon triple bond.
Meanwhile, experts and activists have made the connection between progesterone and birth control because progesterone prevents ovulation during pregnancy. This paved the way for the use of norethindrone in contraception.
However, this did not end up in the first pill. A year after Syntex reported norethynodrone, chemists at rival company Searle, an American company, reported their own compound, norethynodrel. It differed from norethindrone by the position of a single carbon-carbon double bond, and the addition of stomach acid converted it to norethindrone. Gregory Pincus, a developer of the first pill, chose Searle’s compound. But norethindrone had a longer lasting impact. Searle’s compound is no longer marketed. As of 2018, norethindrone was still the 138th most prescribed drug in the United States.
Why, then, has Miramontes remained an obscure figure? He was a student at a time when science was particularly hierarchical. And the fact that Searle beat Syntex to market cut Mexico – and Miramontes – from the narrative. Fame may not have been Miramontes’ preference. His son Octavio Miramontes Vidal says: “My father was a calm individual. He was not someone who sought fame. On the other hand, Djerassi “did not aspire to modesty”, according to an obituary.
Miramontes Vidal says his father was bilingual, but Miramontes did not choose to write his story in English. Others did: Pincus mentioned Syntex in the acknowledgments for his book, but not his chemists. Djerassi credited Miramontes in his works, but called Miramontes “a young Mexican chemist” when he himself was less than two years older. “It’s about who controls the narrative, and the person who controls the narrative of the invention of the pill in the United States becomes in many ways Djerassi,” says Soto Laveaga.
Miramontes ended up accepting a managerial position at Searle to earn more money to support his growing family; he and his wife had 10 children. From there, the university seemed to close its doors, says his son Miramontes Vidal, who is a physicist at UNAM. Although he fulfilled all the requirements, Miramontes never obtained a doctorate. He was not a member of the Mexican Academy of Sciences, co-founded by one of his mentors at UNAM.
The parish priest of Miramontes threatened his wife with excommunication, says Miramontes Vidal – the influence of the Catholic Church in 1960s Mexico cannot be overstated. Miramontes may have alluded to this when he wrote that the Pill “has generated deep and serious moral questions in some sectors of society and reactionary obtuse attitudes in others.”
The times have changed. In the 1980s, Miramontes won awards from the Mexican state governments and the Mexican Chemical Society. In 2010, the president of the Mexican Academy of Sciences ranked Miramontes’ work among Mexico’s top three scientific contributions. But the damage was done. Miramontes Vidal says that when his father died in 2004, the newspapers did not know who he was. News of his death traveled so slowly that it took the American Chemical Society two years to publish an obituary.
Miramontes’ own writings suggest satisfaction with his heritage. “I consider myself lucky”, he wrote in 2001, “because the researcher, in his zeal to discover the truth at the beginning of his work, does not often realize what he is going to find. “