The human hormone that makes up the active ingredient in" the pill" was first synthesized in bulk by modifying a plant hormone found in the Mexican Yam.
Yes, it may sound silly but plants do have hormones. Just like in humans, plant hormones influence the plant's growth and stage of life. Examples of the use of hormones in horticulture include:
Ethylene signals fruit ripening (It can also travel as a gas between fruits; this is why one bad apple spoils the bunch.)
Gibberellins ainvolvedled in stem elongation (Dwarf varieties of plants often have reduced levels of this hormone.)
But getting back to the Mexican Yam story- Why use plant hormones to make a human hormone ? Well plant hormones are similar to human hormones. We can't harvest people, and chemically hormones can be very difficult to create from scratch.
Before this synthesis method was developed, doctors were already realizing the potential of this hormone, progesterone, to treat medical conditions like menstrual disorders. However, it was extremely expensive. In the 1930's, progesterone sold for $80 a gram.
An American Chemist, Russell Marker, found that diosgenin, a plant hormone extracted from yams, could be cheaply converted into a human hormone, progesterone. Despite the obvious potential of this type of research, not a single American pharmaceutical company wanted to take on the project.
However, this did not deter Marker. He quit his prestigious academic job, emptied his savings account, and moved across the border to spend his days drinking tequilaulia and learning everything he could about harvesting yams.
Thanks to the work of Marker and succeeding workers at Syntex, a small biotech company in Mexico, progesterone became cheap and readily available, which lead to the eventual realization that it could be marketed as an oral contraceptive.
Today, forty years after the introduction of oral contraceptives, "the pill" is one the most common methods of birth control. Although there are even better ways to synthesize it now, about half of oral contraceptives on the market still contain this same active ingredient that was first synthesized in bulk using Mexican Yams.
For more information:
Visit the science section of the American History Museum in Washington D.C.
Yams of Fortune: The (Uncontrolled) Birth of Oral Contraceptives