It was 1951 in Mexico City, and George Rosenkranz and two colleagues were hard at work creating a synthetic hormone they hoped would help prevent pregnant women from having a miscarriage.
Their work, though, was far more profound than any of them initially realized. The hormone they were tinkering with, it turned out, also prevented pregnancies.
For a chemist, it was an astonishing discovery. For baby boomer America, it was the unleashing of a cultural mega-storm, a brand new world where women could decide when and if they wanted to be pregnant, and a time when politicians, religious leaders and scholars thunderously debated the ethics of giving humankind such a powerful, existential tool.
For Rosenkranz — who marveled at the breakthrough but left the cultural debate to others — it was another discovery in a career filled with them. Active until the end, Rosenkranz died Sunday at his home in Atherton, Calif., near Stanford University. He was 102.
Roberto Rosenkranz said his father remained healthy, lucid and active until his death and appeared to have died of natural causes.
Rosenkranz, his son said, was fully aware of the magnitude that the discovery of a birth control pill might have on the world, and the societal norms that would be tested, but chose to see it as a medical advancement.
“He did not want to get involved in the politics related to ‘the pill,’” Roberto Rosenkranz said. “He pondered it as a step forward.”
But the cross-currents of the pill were powerful. The pill was approved by the FDA in late 1959. John F. Kennedy was soon to be president, the race to the moon was on and radical change was on the horizon. But at the time, the country was largely locked in the conventions of the postwar years — couples married early, and the children arrived quickly.
Within a year, more than 1 million women had prescriptions for birth control. That number quadrupled by the next year and by the late ’60s, the pill was all but ubiquitous. The product was packaged in a container the size of a compact, the pills stowed in what looked like the dial of a rotary phone — one for each day of the month. It was discreet, easy to slip into a purse, a secret, if one wished.
“For the first time, women had access to an effective form of birth control that did not require men’s cooperation or even their knowledge,” Elaine Tyler May wrote in “America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril and Liberation,” a book that explored women’s struggle to control their bodies and lives.
“The forces swirling around its arrival clashed in thunderous clamor,” May noted.
The Catholic Church condemned the birth control pill, preachers linked it to promiscuity and politicians urged pharmacies to pull the product from the shelves.
Despite the uproar, the oral contraceptive cleared the way for women to plan pregnancies around their careers and lifestyles. It also drew a clear line between sex and procreation, erasing the myth that only men were permitted to see sex as an enjoyment.
The odds of success for Rosenkranz could not have been any longer when he arrived at Syntex in 1946. The Mexico City drug company (it was actually based in Panama for tax reasons) was $350,000 in debt and it had just lost its leading scientist. That the lab was in Mexico, and not amid the research centers in Europe and the United States, didn’t help his cause.
But within years, he and his colleagues had developed cortisone, a steroid that quickly was embraced as a wonder drug, overriding the aches and pains of arthritis and swollen joints. A few months later, the team synthesized a hormone known as norethindrone, which was originally intended to help pregnant women avoid miscarriages. Further experiments showed it also inhibited ovulation.
By the mid-1960s, millions of women were using the pill and the fortunes of Syntex were skyrocketing, with earning sometimes jumping 300% to 400% in a single quarter. In 1963, the company’s stock went up nearly 1,000%. The patent on the birth control pill was held by Rosenkranz, a fellow chemist named Carl Djerassi and one of their students, Luis Miramontes.
To take advantage of its successes, the firm — along with Rosenkranz — moved to what’s now Silicon Valley, largely to be close to Stanford, a respected research university where a steady stream of promising young chemists was emerging.
Gyorgy Rosenkranz was born Aug. 20, 1916, in Budapest, Hungary, where his parents encouraged him to explore the arts. He studied piano at the prestigious Liszt Academy under Bela Bartok, took art classes and learned multiple languages. It was science that intrigued him the most, however.
His life changed radically on Dec. 7, 1941. He had been offered an academic post in Ecuador, but his trip there ended in Cuba when the attack on Pearl Harbor effectively halted global travel. He found work — “for a glorious salary of $20 a week,” he wrote in a retrospective for Syntex — at a laboratory where he was encouraged to explore his interests in synthesizing hormones.
A year later, he and his wife, Edith, moved to Mexico City. The two found the music and sunshine of the country to be delightful, though Rosenkranz had to essentially launch his own training facility to groom the chemists who would help carry the company forward.
Rosenkranz was also a world-class bridge player, competing and winning titles around the world. During one tournament in Washington, D.C., his wife was kidnapped and held for ransom. She was later released and the kidnappers, who were quickly arrested, both received life sentences. Rosenkranz was inducted into the American Contract Bridge League’s Hall of Fame in 2000.
“He was a very humble man,” his son said. “He never was out to take credit.”