Carl Djerassi was one of George Rosenkranz’s pick for the Syntax lab in Mexico City. The Bulgarian son of two Jewish parents, Djerassi and his mother moved to Austria after his parents’ divorce. But the rise of Nazi antisemitism and a denial of their application for citizenship alarmed them. Austria was deadly. His parents briefly remarried in 1938 when he was 15, as part of a successful bid to get Carl and his mother safe.
They lived with his father in Sofia, Bulgaria for one year before proceeding on to the United States. His father followed after the end of World War II. Djerassi studied in the US and received his PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1945. By 1949 Rosenkranz had recruited him as associate director of research at Syntax.
Djerassi would go on to be by far the most prolific and successful of the three, authoring nearly 1,200 scientific papers, four autobiographies, several novels, and numerous plays. His later work included endocrinology and he formed his own pesticide company using hormones to prevent larval development of fleas. Chances are your cat or dog uses a flea prevention treatment he held the patent for.
Luis Miramontes was the third member of their team, a Mexican undergraduate student working on his thesis project. The team succeeded at synthesizing cortisone from Mexican yams and moved on to tackling fertility and contraception drugs. Miramontes was the one who performed the final step in the synthesis of norethisterone, a synthetic variant of progesterone which improved on the original. Progesterone when taken orally becomes ineffective, but not so for norethisterone.
They patented their findings and published research papers before moving on to steroid work. Syntex was not interested in developing a hormonal contraception, so Djerassi began sharing his notes and findings with biologists and gynecologists internationally. One of the people he contacted was American biologist Gregory Pincus. His team would take the Pill through human trials