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Russell Earl Marker 1903-1995.
In spite of the fact that he never bothered to earn a doctorate, Russell Marker had a distinguished scientific career as an expert botanist and pharmacologist who was convinced that the plant kingdom was the place to look for abundant, inexpensive raw materials for steroids. He spent years studying sapogenin, a white crystalline compound obtained by chemically degrading the saponin occurring in many plants.

Marker puzzled out the precise molecular structure of many sapogenins and devised a method called Marker degradation for converting and reshaping a sapogenin molecule into one identical in structure to progesterone, an important step in mass production of all steroidal hormones, including cortisone and the birth control pill.

Marker searched woodlands from Canada to Mexico and focused on a sapogeninn called diosgenen, because it required the fewest conversion steps. After analyzing and experimenting with hundreds of specimens, he finally found his horn of plenty in the gnarled black tubers of a wild yam (Dioscorea spp.) in eastern coastal Mexico.

He approached two large American pharmaceutical companies for funding his process of conversion which used only four steps. His request was considered too risky and no funds were forthcoming. He quit his teaching post at Penn State University, returned to Mexico with his modest savings, collected nearly 10 tons of roots, and, in a borrowed laboratory, produced almost seven pounds of top-quality progesterone, then priced at $36,000 per pound.

He contacted Laboratorios Hormona, a lab in Mexico City, and brought to it two bundles of progesterone, an amount that equaled roughly half of the world's production at the time. His 40 percent stake in the subsequently formed partnership was granted on the basis of his expertise and four and one-half pounds of progesterone. The company, Syntex, formed in 1944, rapidly prospered. Marker set it on the road to mass production of synthetic progesterone and then left for other ventures.

While working for the Ethyl Corporation, he helped develop the octane rating system for gasoline. At the Rockefeller Institute he worked out the development of a procedure used to study molecular structures. He then accepted an appointment as professor of organic chemistry at Penn State.

According to his family, Dr. Marker died as a result of complications from a broken hip.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Barbara Johnston