George Rosenkranz, a Hungarian-born chemist who helped devise what he called the “molecular acrobatics” behind the birth control pill, producing a synthetic hormone that forever changed sexual politics by giving women control over their fertility, died Sunday at his home in Atherton, California. He was 102.
Rosenkranz was one of numerous scientists and advocates whose work led to the widespread availability of “the pill,” a drug that has been used in various forms by hundreds of millions of women in the United States, where the first oral contraceptive was approved in 1960, and around the world.
“The pill was not the result of serendipity,” Rosenkranz once said. “On the contrary, it was the result of a long chain of events, with many individuals and team players involved.”
He conducted his research at Syntex, a pharmaceutical company based in Mexico City that he later led as chairman and CEO. He had settled in Mexico after fleeing Europe along with other Jewish scientists during World War II; many of his relatives perished in the Holocaust.
From the earliest days of his career, Rosenkranz was fascinated by the possibility of making synthetic forms of naturally occurring hormones. In 1951, Syntex announced that scientists working under him had synthesized cortisone, a steroid hormone that reduces inflammation, using inedible yams found in Mexico.
Later that year, Rosenkranz and two colleagues — Carl Djerassi, an Austrian-born scientist and fellow refugee from Nazi Europe, and Luis Miramontes, a Mexican doctoral student — were credited with making norethindrone, a synthetic version of the hormone progesterone that is also called norethisterone.
Rosenkranz credited Ludwig Haberlandt, an Austrian scientist, with identifying progesterone as a contraceptive in the 1920s.
“He asked a very simple question,” Rosenkranz told The Associated Press. “Why doesn’t a pregnant woman get pregnant again during her pregnancy? That is because of the role of the female hormone progesterone, which later as it turned out inhibits ovulation and all those number of processes.”
In 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved Enovid by the Searle pharmaceutical company, the first commercially available version of the pill. It was a watershed moment in the feminist movement, allowing women to enjoy sex without fear of becoming pregnant, permitting couples to decide when and whether to begin families, and setting off an enduring debate about sexual values.