George Rosenkranz, who in the early 1950s, together with another Jewish chemist, Carl Djerassi (both refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe), synthesized the progesterone that was to be used in one of the first two combined oral contraceptive pills, and is still used every day by millions of women around the world, passed away on Sunday, two months short of his 103rd birthday, in Atherthon, California.
Claudia Flavell-While in 2017 wrote in The Chemical Engineer that “the impact and importance of the contraceptive pill can hardly be overstated.”
According to Flavell-While, Rosenkranz and Djerassi, together with a third Jewish chemist, a refugee from Austria named Luis Miramontes, set out to synthesize a progesterone steroid that would combine two effects: 1. replacing the carbon 19 atom with hydrogen would greatly increase the compound’s activity; and 2. adding an acetylene group to position 17 would allow it to survive absorption through the digestive tract.
“It fell to Miramontes to do most of the practical work, and so, on 15 October 1951, Miramontes completed the synthesis of 19-nor-17α-ethynyltestosterone or, for short ‘norethindrone,’ which turned out to be the first oral contraceptive to be synthesized,” Flavell-While wrote, adding, “The substance was as good as the team had hoped, proving to be the most active oral progestational hormone of its time.”
According to the same author, progesterone was initially used to treat menstrual disorders and infertility. No one saw it as an effective contraceptive, and when they did they didn’t think the conservative post-war society would approve. Or as Rosenkranz put it years later: “I went around Europe and the world offering the contraceptive, but nobody wanted it.”
Two women, Margaret Sanger and Katharine Dexter McCormick, women’s rights advocates who believed a contraceptive pill would change women’s status radically—which it did—paid yet another Jewish scientist, Gregory Goodwin Pincus, to develop the contraceptive pill.
The radical success of 20th century “women’s liberation,” whether you are for or against it, could not be imagined without the pill. Without a near full-proof method of contraception, the sexual revolution would not have been possible. Being able to choose whether and when to become pregnant enabled women to control their professional lives and be equals in their home lives.
In July 1984, Rosenkranz’ wife Edith was kidnapped from the North American Bridge Championships in Washington, D.C. (George Rosenkranz was an accomplished Bridge player), and ransomed for one million dollars. The FBI and the District of Columbia police captured the kidnappers and she was returned safely.