Home > News and Events > News Archive > Information about Russell Marker > Penn State Obituary: Russell Marker, Pioneer of the Steroid Hormone Industry, Dies at 92

Penn State Obituary: Russell Marker, Pioneer of the Steroid Hormone Industry, Dies at 92

Main Content

Filed under:

Penn State obituary for Russell Marker, dated March 5, 1995.

Russell Earl Marker, a reclusive scientist who discovered the basic chemistry underlying the commercial synthesis of the hormone progesterone and a cofounder of the Syntex Corporation, died Friday at the Phoebe Barker Health Center in Wernersville, PA, at the age of 92. He died of complications resulting from a hip fracture, according to his family.

Marker arguably has had as profound an impact on the course of human events as anyone now alive," Said Thomas Wartik, dean emeritus of the Perm State Eberly College of Science, where Dr. Marker's work leading to the large-scale preparation of progesterone was accomplished in the late 1930s and early 1940s. "The world's population would now be larger by literally tens of millions, especially in the poorer countries such as lndia,were it not for the contraceptive pill that is to this day being produced by the steroid chemistry he developed," Wartik said.

Marker performed the basic research showing progesterone could be made from
diosgenin, a substance occurring only in tiny quantities in plants found in the United
States. Searching for a richer source of the substance, he then Went alone into the
Mexican jungle Where he found and brought back a Mexican yam plant that was rich in diosgenin. Then, having failed in his efforts to interest U. S. companies in the
production of progesterone, which at that time cost $80.00 per gram ($36,000.00 per pound), he returned to Mexico where, along with a physician and a  businessman who lived in Mexico City, he founded the Syntex company, now one of the World's largest pharmaceutical firms. Progesterone is now the cheapest of all  steroid hormones.

Dr. Marker was born on a small farm near Hagerstown, MD. At the age of 17,
turning a deaf ear to his father, who wanted him to become a farmer, he enrolled at  the University of Maryland, where he earned a bachelor's and then a master's degree in chemistry. Deciding he had no need for a doctorate, he went on to become one of the rare scientists who achieve rank and stature without the Ph.D. In 1990 the University of Maryland awarded him an honorary doctor of science degree.

His first job was with the Ethyl Corporation, where he was responsible for inventing
the octane-rating system for gasoline, now in use at every U.S. gas station. From
Ethyl he moved to the Rockefeller Institute, where he developed an analytical  procedure known as optical rotatory dispersion that has been important in  investigations of molecular structure.

In 1934 he accepted a faculty position at Penn State, where he quickly rose to the rank of professor and where he discovered the reaction known as the "Marker
degradation," now an important step in the commercial production of all steroidal
hormones, including progesterone, cortisone, and the birth-control pill. Having  published 160 scientific papers based on the work done at Penn State, he left for

Mexico in 1944.

Only in recent years did Dr. Marker receive the recognition due his important  contributions. He was featured in the BBC television program, NOVA, dealing with
the discovery of the contraceptive pill. German public television, ZDF, broadcast a
feature-length dramatization of his activities in Mexico. ln 1990, a Russell Marker
Symposium in Steroid Chemistry was held in his honor in Berlin. At the Smithsonian
Museum of American History in Washington, DC, he is featured prominently as the
scientist whose pioneering studies spawned the now-vast steroidal hormone
industry. Six annual lectureships in his honor have been established at Penn State,
and two at the University of Maryland.

He is survived by two Sons, Russell C., of Sinking Spring, PA, and James K., of
Ridgewood, NJ; a sister, Alice, of Hagerstown, PA, and four grandchildren.

Friends will be received on Wednesday at the Koch Funeral Home in State College
from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. The funeral service will begin at 1:30 p.m. at the funeral home.

[ Thomas Wartik ]

Document Actions

Share this page: |
Filed under: