Guide to the Russell Earl Marker Papers, 1919-1984

601

Collection Overview

Title:
Russell Earl Marker Papers
Dates (Inclusive):
1912-1992
Creator:
Marker, Russell Earl, 1902-1995
Abstract:
Marker, a professor of organic chemistry, 1934-1943, at Pennsylvania State University, developed a natural source of progesterone which made possible the birth control pill.
Abstract:
The collection consists chiefly of letters, scrapbooks, books, articles, photographs, and objects relating to Marker's career as an organic chemist and pioneer in the steroid chemistry industry. The bulk of the materials documents his gradual rediscovery by the popular press and the scientific community after his retirement from chemistry in 1949. While copies of Marker's published scientific papers are included in the collection, there are no research notebooks or substantial primary source materials from the period when he was actively involved in research. Correspondence, 1928-1969, details employment by the Rockefeller Institute and Penn State; correspondence, 1969-1984, documents reestablishing his ties with the scientific community and the Syntex Corporation, which he co-founded. Included are copies of several of Marker's patents, 1940-1941, his master's thesis, 1924, dissertation, 1928, published papers, 1933-1943, and a copy of his reminiscences, "The Early Production of Steroidal Hormones," 1983. Articles by Pedro A. Lehmann and others from the Mexican and American chemical journals provide the bulk of the biographical information about Marker. Also, includes clippings, magazine and scientific articles, and books documenting Marker's treatment by the popular and scientific press, 1937-1984. Also, includes photographs, scrapbooks, and artifacts reflecting his career, honors by the scientific community, and his subsequent interest in silversmiths and fine reproductions of European silver pieces. The collection contains spatulas, thermometers, and the bowie knife he used to dig up the first yams in Mexico, used to produce progesterone; silver trays presented to Marker by chemical congresses; and two oil portraits of Marker, 1974. Related to the collection are tape recordings of the first Russell E. Marker lectures delivered by Professor Carl Djerassi in 1984.
Collection Number:
601
Size:
3.8 Cubic feet
Location:
For current information on the location of these materials, please consult the Special Collections Library  library catalog.
Repository:
Special Collections Library. Pennsylvania State University.
Languages:
English

Biographical Note

Russell Earl Marker was born on the family farm near Hagerstown, Maryland in 1902, the son of Mr. & Mrs. J. Irvin Marker. He received his B.S. from the University of Maryland in 1923 and then took the only available fellowship in Maryland's chemistry department. This was in physical chemistry under Dr. Neil Gordon and Marker completed the M.S. in 1924 with a study of the adsorption of dyes by inorganic gels. Marker then began doctoral studies in organic chemistry under Dr. Morris Kharasch. Marker spent all his time in the lab working with organic mercury compounds but failed to take the non-organic coursework necessary for the doctorate. Despite Dr. Kharasch's warning that he would end up as a urine analyst, Marker left to continue his organic work. His dissertation research results were published but he never received the degree. In 1926 the now-married Russell E. Marker went to work as an organic chemist for Ethyl Gasoline Co. After two years at Ethyl, Marker had lost interest in the organometallic compounds and accepted a position starting February 1, 1928 at the Rockefeller Institute. Often going 72 hours at a stretch in the lab, Marker rapidly gained more responsibilities at Rockefeller. In his six years there he co-authored 32 papers on configuration, optical rotation and its dispersion, and the Walden Inversion. However, by the spring of 1934, Marker concluded he had gone as far as he wanted to in this area and decided to switch to the study of steroids. Since the Rockefeller Institute already had a team working in this area, Marker abruptly left a $4,400 salary for a $1,800 fellowship at Penn State. It had been Frank Whitmore that lured Marker to Penn State with the opportunity of funding from Parke, Davis, Co. He had little to work with at the start, but he threw himself into the study of progesterone, the so-called pregnancy hormone and the problem of how to produce this valuable substance in commercial quantities. Marker produced over 50 papers in his first three years at Penn State, concentrating on the processes for isolating progesterone from cholesterol, animal pregnancy urines, and sapogenins. He also advanced in this time from a research assistant to Associate Professor of Research in Organic Chemistry. From 1939 on, Marker concentrated on the sapogenins and then sarsasapogenin to recover pregnanedione, the natural source of the hormone progesterone. Finally he discovered that a process of heating, oxidation, reduction, hydrolysis, and further oxidation (the so-called Marker Degradation) would yield the desired result and a process that could be scaled to industrial levels. The search now became one for plant sources of sarsasapogenin or other sapogenins that could be degraded to progesterone. Moving into the new Osmond Lab in 1940, Marker had much improved facilities and equipment for his Natural Products Laboratory. In 1940 and 1941, Marker's research team conducted extensive tests on plants collected all over the United States. They eventually came upon diosgenin, a sapogenin that had been found in a Japanese yam species, Dioscorea Tokoro, by Ueno and Ohta Tsukamoto in 1937. Investigating more than 400 species, isolating and identifying 12 new sapogenins and two new steroids, Marker's work produced more than 160 papers and secured his promotion to Professor of Organic Chemistry. Marker eventually discovered that  Dioscorea might be available in the Mexican state of Veracruz. After an unsuccessful attempt in November 1941, he returned to Mexico in January 1942. Overcoming diplomatic indifference and a misadventure with a Mexican botanist, Marker took the bus to Orizaba alone. He knew no Spanish but managed to recover and return to Pennsylvania with about 20 lbs. of the cabeza de negro tuber. His work with these plants, the  Dioscorea reduction, was shown to Parke, Davis, but they did not believe it was possible to bring the roots from the jungle and refine them in Mexico in commercial quantities because of the chaotic political situation in pro-German Mexico. Marker returned to Mexico in October 1942 and collected ten tons of cabeza de negro, reduced it to syrup, brought it back to the U.S., and produced over three kilograms of progesterone from it, the largest lot ever produced and valued at that time at $80 a gram. In late 1942 Marker made his first contact with Emerik Somlo and Federico Lehmann of Laboratorios Hormonas, S.A. and discussed beginning a new company for commercial production of sex hormones. In the spring of 1943 Marker delivered 2 kilograms of progesterone -- almost as much as the entire world produced in a year -- to Dr. Somlo's New York office. There the final arrangements were made to form the new Company Syntex, S.A., with Marker's progesterone earning him 40% of the shares in the new company. Penn State, meanwhile, had little inkling that Marker's interests had once again radically changed. The commercial production of the hormone was now his driving ambition and he resigned from Penn State effective December 1, 1943, apparently disappearing into Mexico. Syntex was chartered in January 1944 and produced over 30 kilos of progesterone over the next year. But in early 1945, Marker realized that Somlo had no intention of giving him his share of the profits. He left and formed his own lab, Botanica-Mex, S.A. There Marker began using a new  Dioscorea, barbasco, which gave greater yields. There were still problems in securing enough of the root and Somlo was also threatening legal action for infringement of trade secrets. Marker sold his company, which became under new owners, Hormosynth, S.A. From 1946 to 1949 he served as a consultant to Hormosynth and continued to publish research papers. But in 1949, Russell E. Marker suddenly retired from chemistry, ending an amazing career that would have inestimable impact on the entire world. From 1959 to 1970 he researched three outstanding 18th century silversmiths and commissioned reproductions which have become highly prized. They have even been selected as gifts by the government of Mexico for visiting dignitaries and heads of state. In the 1960's Marker's work was gradually being recognized in the popular press. He was becoming celebrated as a mystery scientist whose single-minded work had made possible the birth control pill. Scientific recognition finally came in 1969 when he was honored by the Mexican Chemical Society at the VI International Symposium on the Chemistry of Natural Products. Federico Lehmann's son Pedro was working at this time on a biographical article about Marker which appeared in 1970 in the Mexican society's journal and then in 1973 in the  Journal of Chemical Education in America. In the following year Marker's work in Mexico was dramatized in a German film for television and he was honored again, at the IV International Congress on Hormonal Steroids, in Mexico City. Finally American chemists recognized him in 1975 at the First Chemical Congress of the North American Continent. Since that time Marker has reestablished contact with Syntex. Now a multinational pharmaceuticals company, Syntex established the Russell Marker Faculty Fellowship at Penn State in 1981 to provide support for outstanding young faculty members in the Department of Chemistry. In 1984, Prof. Marker provided funds to establish the Marker Lectures in the Chemical Sciences, Genetic Engineering, Physics and Astronomy at Penn State.

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Collection Overview

The Russell E. Marker Papers, housed in two record cartons and two scrapbook boxes (3.8 cu. ft.), are located in the University Archives/Penn State Room, Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

The collection consists chiefly of letters, scrapbooks, books, articles, photographs, and objects relating to Prof. Marker's career as an organic chemist and pioneer in the steroid chemistry industry. The papers provide interesting insights into Marker's work in hormonal chemistry research, although the bulk of the materials document his gradual rediscovery by the popular press and the scientific community after his retirement from chemistry in 1949. While copies of Prof. Marker's published scientific papers are included in the collection, there are no research notebooks or substantial primary source materials from the period when he was actively involved in research.

The papers are organized into thirteen series. Correspondence (1928-1984) dates largely from 1969 to 1984 and documents his reestablishing ties with the scientific community and the Syntex Corporation. Earlier correspondence primarily details employment by the Rockefeller Institute and Penn State. There are copies of several patents taken out by Prof. Marker in 1940-1941 and, in the papers series, copies of his M.S. thesis (1924) and Ph.D. dissertation (1928), published papers from 1933 to 1943, and a copy of his reminiscences "The Early Production of Steroidal Hormones" (1983).

A biographical articles series includes texts of articles by Pedro Lehmann, et. al., from the Mexican and American chemical journals which are the fullest treatments. Additional series of clippings and magazine articles, scientific articles, and books include the bulk of Marker's treatment by the popular and scientific press between 1937 and 1984.

The photographs, scrapbooks, conferences, and miscellaneous series include a variety of photographic and published materials concerning Prof. Marker's career, honors by the scientific community, and his subsequent interest in fine reproductions of European silver pieces. Finally the objects series includes the bowie knife he used to dig up the first yams in Mexico, spatulas and thermometers used in the production of progesterone, and silver trays presented to Prof. Marker by chemical congresses. Separately housed are two portraits of Russell Marker in oils done by a Mexican artist in 1974.

Related to the collection are tape recordings of the first Russell E. Marker lectures delivered by Prof. Carl Djerassi in 1984, and pre-existing biographical and photographic portrait files on Prof. Marker in the University Archives/Penn State Room. This collection is the gift of Professor Marker and the Syntex Corporation, which had organized much of this material in its archives before presenting it to Penn State, with additions from the files of Dean Thomas Wartik of Penn State's College of Science and from Dr. Carl Djerassi, Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University.

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Administrative Information

Access Restrictions

Collection is open for research.

Copyright Notice

Copyright is retained by the creators of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.

Preferred Citation

[Identification of item], Russell Earl Marker papers. [manuscript]. 1919-1984. (601), Penn State University Archives, Special Collections Library, Pennsylvania State University.

Processing Information

Processed by Special Collections staff.

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Controlled Access Headings

Genre(s)

  • Scrapbooks

Personal Name(s)

  • Marker, Russell Earl, 1902-1995

Subject(s)

  • Progesterone History Sources

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Collection Inventory

Click associated checkboxes to select items to request. When you have finished, click the Submit Request button.

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