Extraordinary Innovation from Mexico

By Brooke Gazer

When we were planning our move to Mexico many of our friends and family thought we had lost our minds. We had visions of warm sandy beaches with palm trees swaying gently in the breeze; they had visions of Clint Eastwood in “A Fist Full of Dollars”. (Never mind those “spaghetti westerns” were shot in Italy!) The truth is that Mexico is a multi-faceted nation that cannot be summed up with one stereotype. One aspect that might surprise you is the sophisticated level of scientific research that has come from this country. Mexico has been involved in some the most advanced discoveries of the 20th century. Here are five examples.

  1. The Birth Control Pill: The invention was first co-patented by three chemists in Mexico: Carl Djerassi, Luis Ernesto Miramontes and George Rosenkranz. Dr. Djerassi, as the head of the hormone-synthesizing laboratory lab at Syntex, was credited with the invention; however he affirms that it was Miramontes who conducted the very last step of the first synthesis of the compound which allowed patients to take it orally. Miramontes was an undergrad student at the time.

Syntex is an acronym for “synthesis” and “Mexico”. The pharmaceutical company was founded in Mexico because a wild yam called “barbasco” only grows here. The yam was discovered to be an excellent source for producing synthetic progesterone. Progesterone inhibits ovulation and if it could be synthesized cheaply and taken orally the possibilities would be enormous. Prior to Miramontes’ research, synthetic progesterone could only be administered by injection so this was a major breakthrough. On May 1, 1956 the first oral contraceptive, tradenamed “Norinyl”, was patented by Syntex.

From that moment the race was on, in the USA the first oral contraceptives were approved by the FDA on June 23, 1960. Searle was the first company to gain FDA approval with a pill called “Enovid”. By 1962 three companies including Syntex were marketing “The Pill”. In 1999, The Economist rated the contraceptive pill as the most important invention of the 20th century, used by over 215 million women across the world.

  1. Color Television: As is the case with computers and the internet, several inventors were involved in the process of color TV. Guillermo González Camarena was among the early inventors having developed the “chromoscopic adapter for television equipment”. This was an early color television transmission system, designed to easily adapt to black-and-white television equipment.

On August 31, 1946, González Camarena sent his first color transmission from his lab in the offices of The Mexican League of Radio Experiments in Mexico City. He was the first to successfully send a color transmission. (RCA claims to be the first but Camarena filed his patent a month earlier.) In 1963 he obtained authorization to make the first publicly announced color broadcast in Mexico on XHGC-TV, “Paraíso Infantil”, using the NTSC system which had by now been adopted as the standard for color programming.

The relatively small amount of network color programming, combined with the high cost of color television sets, meant that as late as 1964 only 3.1% of television households in the U.S. owned a color set. In 1965 Camarena was killed in an auto accident at age 48. Who knows what he may have achieved had he survived and continued his research. Today, the precursor of color for televisions created by Camarena has been transformed so much that it is now known as HD (High Definition).

  1. Typhus Vaccine: Typhus is an epidemic which occurs in unsanitary conditions where lice are able to flourish and individuals are bitten by the disease ridden vermin.

Dr. Ruiz Castañeda left Mexico in 1931 to work with Dr. Hans Zinsser and together they developed a vaccine for Typhus. This vaccine was developed at Harvard University and since Zinsser was the senior researcher, the vaccine is officially credited to him. Dr. Zinsser’s and Dr. Ruiz Castañeda’s work also led to new tissue culture methods that are used today as standard laboratory procedures.

On Castañeda’s return to Mexico he founded the “Laboratory of Experimental Immunology” in 1938, where he perfected the Typhus vaccine which became know as the “Castañeda Vaccine”. This formula along with a competing product known as the “Cox vaccine” became invaluable in protecting allied forces during WWII.   The devastation caused by war can result in widespread Typhus epidemics. Such outbreaks are said to have caused as many deaths as all the weapons of all the wars over the past 4 centuries.

The new “Castañeda Vaccine” was widely used in Mexico because there had been a high rate of Typhus among the poorer farming communities. From 1893 to 1907 Mexico reported over 7,000 deaths from typhus, within the first five years of introducing the vaccine the death toll dropped to about 700 and by the early 1960s only 14 fatalities were reported. The numbers speak for themselves.

  1. Instabook: Ever dream of publishing your memoirs or the next best seller? Meet Victor Celorio, born in Mexico City 1957. He is considered one of the ten most important Latin American inventors. His passion for books led him to develop the technology popularly known as “InstaBook or Book on Demand”. This equipment supports e-book distribution by quickly and elegantly printing an offline copy.

“InstaBook Maker III” can be attached to normal computer. When the sheets appear from the printer the Instabook Maker takes over: sorting, cutting, pairing, folding and binding with a soft cover. Within minutes your book is complete. It can make from one to one hundred books at a cost of about a dollar each for a book of about 200 pages. This allows independent bookstores to have an extensive library which can be printed on request; eliminating the costs of shipping and stocking merchandise in addition to reducing paper waste. With Kindle and other electronic readers, printed books may eventually become obsolete but there will always be those of us who just like the feel of paper.

  1. Acceleglove: This amazing device uses sensors attached to a glove and the arm to translate sign language into either the spoken word or text. Sensors within the glove measure finger movement using a camera to gauge distance and dynamic movement. These signals are analyzed by a microcontroller to find the position of the fingers and hand movement.

Dr. Hernandez-Rebollar, Ph.D. was an innovator on a mission. He wondered about the possibilities for creating a way for deaf people to translate sign language into sound by electronic means.   He came to George Washington University in 1998 on a Fulbright scholarship after completing his undergraduate and master’s work at University of Puebla in Mexico. He devoted more than three years to helping the deaf communicate more easily with the hearing world.

It’s estimated that between 500,000 to 2,000,000 people in the U.S. alone use American Sign Language, but interest in the AcceleGlove goes beyond the deaf community. When it is perfected, the glove could be used to teach ASL, additionally it could be modified for use in virtual reality or military settings.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, a B&B in Huatulco. www.bbaguaazul.com