Birth of a Trade War

Published: February 4, 2014

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The Pill is iconic in American history. It helped start the Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s, and the ability to choose when and if to be mothers opened up new professional possibilities for women. All of this is pretty well known. But much less well known is the history of the Pill itself, and how it is rooted (quite literally) in the giant barbasco yams of México.

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In the 1930’s, hormone therapy was a new frontier for the pharmaceutical industry. Hormone treatments were thought to be the answer to everything from eczema to diabetes, but the pharmaceutical industry struggled to produce large enough quantities. The best source they’d found was actually urine – leading to some pretty unseemly methods for collecting the urine in the first place (think large vats placed outside bars and encouragement to the male patrons to relieve themselves there!). Naturally, people began to think that there had to be a better way.

By the early 1940’s, an American chemist named Russell Marker was a man on a mission – finding a plant source from which to produce hormones for the pharmaceutical industry. Marker’s focus eventually narrowed to yams, which produced a molecule that was similar to the human hormone progesterone. Marker traveled all over the United States looking for a yam that would be able to produce enough of this molecule for large-scale use, but his search in the US proved fruitless.

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Russell Marker’s Faculty Photo, Penn State University.

In 1941, while visiting a botanist in Texas, he happened upon a book containing an illustration of the barbasco yam – an enormous tuber that grew wild in Mexico. Marker had a feeling he might have found the plant he was looking for…

Despite knowing little to nothing about México and not speaking any Spanish, Marker headed South – to the Mexican state of Veracruz, where these yams were native. With a few Spanish words and a lot of hand gestures, Marker somehow managed to ask a local shop owner where he might find the barbasco yams. The owner told him to come back the next day and when he returned, Marker was shown two of the enormous yams, each weighing over 100 lbs.

From these two yams alone, Marker was able to synthesize more progesterone than had ever been produced up until that point in history. Marker knew that he’d made a very profitable discovery. With his treasured yams in tow, he made his way to México City and there he established a partnership with a Mexican laboratory, and formed a new pharmaceutical company: Syntex (a combination of the words “synthetic” and “México”).

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Syntex Stock Certificate.

The Populist and the Pill

Twenty years later, the world was a different place thanks to Russell Marker’s discovery. Back in the United States, the Sexual Revolution was in full-swing and women were able to pursue their dreams like never before. Back in México, however, the undeveloped country struggled with uncontrolled population growth. Despite the strong influence of the Catholic Church, populist president Luis Echevarria wanted to address the population growth by developing a new birth control pill in México for Mexicans. He commissioned a study that was surprised to find the forgotten Mexican origins of the pill.

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Mexican President Luis Echevarria (undated).

With this knowledge, President Echevarria saw an opportunity to control the global production of birth control pills, and bring much needed money into the Mexican economy and greater popular support for his administration. He formed a national pharmaceutical company called Proquivemex which, he envisioned, would enable Mexican peasants to charge more for the yams that were so essential to producing oral contraceptives. But the plan backfired. Syntex had already been investigating other potential sources of progesterone, and the spike in the price of barbasco yams convinced them to switch over their production to soy and other cheaply available plants. The Mexican peasants who collected these yams for the pharmaceutical industry ended up losing that source of income altogether.

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The story of Russell Marker, the barbasco yam and the Mexican origins of the pill shows how the United States has been profoundly influenced by its southern neighbor and vice versa. The cross-border exchange of ideas has continually shaped a collective history between the United States and México. To learn more about this history, listen to our show “Border Crossings.” Or listen to our story on the Pill right here:

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