A Brilliant Discovery by an Obscure Mexican Scientist

Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 11.57.01 AMBy Brooke Gazer

At the tender age of 26, a young chemical engineering student from Nayarit made an astonishing discovery while working on his doctoral thesis. This discovery placed the name of Luis Ernesto Miramontes Cárdenas into the American Inventors Hall of Fame, alongside Louis Pasteur, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Alexander Graham Bell. A group of Nobel laureates named his breakthrough discovery as one of the most important inventions of the last 2,000 years. However, unlike other important inventors who have become household names, his has drifted into obscurity.

In 1951 Miramontes was working on his doctoral dissertation at Syntex, a small Mexican owned company. He was under the supervision of Carl Djerassi, a renowned American scientist who had been brought to Syntex because of a wild yam that was unique to Mexico. This plant could be synthesized into cortisone, a newly discovered steroid drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. The extremely complicated process resulted in an exorbitant cost of production and at $80 USD per gram, it was prohibitive for most patients. (With inflation in today’s currency this would have been over $800 USD per gram.) Djerassi had been charged with the task of finding a simpler, cheaper way of synthesizing it. Eventually one was found and cortisone has become a commonly used treatment, but not before Djerassi´s student made his own staggering discovery.

While Luis was assigned to the cortisone project, he discovered another compound which became known as “norethindrone”. Although not the formula Syntex was seeking, the discovery was huge! It is the active ingredient used in oral contraceptives. Unfortunately, Djerassi made reference to this earthshaking breakthrough while attending a scientific conference in the USA … and the race to develop the first birth control pill began.

Developing a compound is only a small part of what pharmaceutical laboratories are tasked with. Equally extensive work involves passing the rigorous testing that must precede going to market. Miramontes developed the original compound for Syntex in October of 1951, but in May of 1960, Searle was first out of the gate with a license to market what has commonly become known simply as “The Pill”.

Although the Mexican grad student Luis Miramontes developed the compound, it was his American supervisor, Carl Djerassi, who garnered most of the credit. For his revolutionary achievement, Luis Miramontes received a meager bonus of $10 USD!

Luis dedicated his life to science and with a few of his colleagues he founded UNAM’s Institute of Chemistry. He was not only content to live in relative obscurity – he may have preferred it! The conservative Mexican society in which his family lived did not view his discovery with the same excitement as the scientific community. Some sentiments were so strong that the priest in the small town where his family resided threatened to excommunicate Luis’s wife, upon discovering the identity of her husband.

Years after “The Pill” had been launched, Miramontes received a letter from a prominent American law firm. It advised him that many people were becoming millionaires as a result of his work and offered to intercede on his behalf. Luis showed the letter to his family before tearing it up. Living a quiet life, enjoying simple pleasures, he desired neither fame nor fortune.

Luis Miramontes died the way he lived. Upon his death in 2004, his son contacted a Mexican national newspaper to advise them that a great scientist had passed away. Uninterested in reporting the death of an unknown person, the paper redirected the call to their obituary department and quoted the price per column inch. While the family could afford the expense, they declined the offer to purchase space in the publication. His death went unnoticed, as he likely would have preferred.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view bed and breakfast in Huatulco (www.bbaguaazul.com).