Nowadays, Organon is one of the leading pharmaceutical firms in the market of hormonal drugs (Tausk 1978:35; Wolffers et al. 1989:32). This position dates from the 1920s, when the Dutch company gained a strong position in the industrial market as a major producer of female sex hormones, a position it held till the Second World War. Organon’s first product appeared on the market in 1923. This was not a sex hormone, but the pancreatic hormone, insulin. Insulin was considered a “respectable” drug for a well-defined disease (diabetes). With this new drug Organon established its position as a pharmaceutical company in The Netherlands.

Since its foundation in 1923, Organon has presented itself as a science – based company, explicitly expressed in its corporate slogan: “Manufacturer of Organ Preparations on a Scientific Basis” (Figure 5.1).


Figure 5.1 Organon’s letterhead: Organon Limited Company for the Manufacturing of Organ Preparations on a Scientific Basis.

Source: Organon Archives

The image of a scientific company was chosen as a general strategy in approaching clinicians and general practitioners.2 By emphasizing its scientific character, Organon tried to clear the clouds of illegitimacy and quackery hanging over previous organ preparations, and sought to convince the medical profession of the superior quality of its products. Since the 1890s organotherapy had become rather popular and gave rise to a flourishing trade in organ extracts from virtually all tissues. Notwithstanding its popularity, the medical application of extracts of animal organs, however, remained rather controversial. The clinical promise that animal extracts would provide drugs for the treatment of a wide variety of diseases ascribed to malfunctions of the corresponding organ, was not fulfilled as readily as scientists had expected. In the early years of organotherapy only thyroid and adrenal extracts were considered to be of therapeutic value. During the following decades, organotherapy became increasingly associated with “quackery.” The evaluation of gonadal extracts was even more controversial because of Brown-Sequard’s claims about rejuvenation and sexuality (Borell 1985). The controversy about organotherapy also had major advantages. The debate about the therapeutic value of organ extracts brought this new type of drug into the limelight. Subsequently, the study of organ extracts and their therapeutic promise was known throughout the world at the turn of the century (Clarke 1989).

We saw before how criticism of the therapeutic value of organ preparations was part of the broader debate about the quality of all types of drugs, that was initiated by the medical profession in their striving for a “scientific” medicine at the turn of the century (Clarke 1989). In the 1920s,

Dutch general practitioners founded the Society against Quackery (de Vereniging tegen Kwakzalverij) to protest against the “growing anarchy in drugs” (Pinkhof 1927a;1927b). Following the debate on quackery, drug regulation gradually became institutionalized. The Netherlands was among the first countries to establish a special institute for the control of drugs. In 1920, the Dutch authorities founded the Government Institute for Pharmaco – therapeutic Research (not to be confused with Laqueur’s laboratory) for the control and inspection of the quality of commercial pharmaceutical products. The task of this institute was “to investigate the composition, purity, and pharmacological activity of drugs, disinfectants, and food, which are used in the cure of diseases.”3 Following these drug regulations, pharmaceutical companies had to labor under more rigid constraints.

The institutionalization of drug control in The Netherlands had a major impact on Organon’s policy with respect to the promotion of its products. In order to avoid association with quackery, Organon adopted the strategy of addressing the medical profession and not the public. As the medical profession became increasingly science-oriented, so Organon emphasized the scientific character of its products.4 Hormone preparations were promoted as scientific medicines, not as folk medicines. The close cooperation of Organon with Laqueur’s laboratory strengthened the scientific image of Organon.

To interest general practitioners and clinicians in the new area of hormone therapy and to convince them of its scientific character, Organon founded a specific journal, entitled Het Hormoon (The Hormone). This journal was founded in 1931 by Organon’s medical director, Marius Tausk, who edited the journal for almost twenty years; in the early years he also wrote most of the articles (published unsigned). The aim of Het Hormoon was “to provide a summary of published literature and—as we hope—a not too dry reproduction from this. This reproduction will take place objectively and according to scientific points of view.” (Tausk 1978:102). Initially restricted to The Netherlands, the journal was soon published in French, German, English, Czech, Polish and Italian, and distributed gratis in more than ten different countries all over Europe (Tausk 1935:1). This journal played a major role in informing the medical profession about hormones as drugs, especially since drug information, other than that supplied by companies, was not abundant in those years. In the 1920s, the pharmaceutical Industry was one of the major suppliers on information of drugs, in Europe as well as in the United States. In the USA physicians relied heavily on pharmaceutical firms to provide the most recent information about new products. Sometimes the medical journals published independent results of clinical tests, but this was not always the case. Moreover, the reports in medical journals were often far less complete than the information provided by pharmaceutical companies (Liebenau 1987:129). Het Hormoon thus functioned as a major


Figure 5.2 The first cover of Organon’s journal Het Hormoon (The Hormone). Source: Organon Archives

device to control the flow of information about this new class of drugs to the medical profession (Figure 5.2).

The strategy of Organon to present itself as a science-based industry was not just designed to establish a scientific veneer. Cooperation with university scientists provided Organon with all the means required to develop into a major science-based industry. We have seen how the cooperation with laboratory scientists provided the pharmaceutical company with the required biological assay techniques to manufacture hormonal preparations which, in contrast to previous products made by other companies, could meet the scientific standards of quality. From the start, Organon had a small laboratory, housing equipment transferred from Laqueur’s laboratory. Research on sex hormones took place both at Organon’s laboratory in Oss and at Laqueur’s laboratory in Amsterdam. In this period, there was as yet no strong division between manufacturing and research, because all manufacturing procedures were practically new, and thus required much basic research (Tausk 1978:52). Organon’s laboratory staff was trained at Laqueur’s laboratory. Moreover, the hormone preparations produced by Organon were controlled for quality in the laboratory in Amsterdam and were put on the market only with the permission of Laqueur. Ernst Laqueur had the right of veto over hormone preparations that were not passed by his laboratory (Tausk 1978:16). Laqueur thus provided Organon with access to procedures for testing, standardizing and synthesizing its products, which enabled the young firm to establish its position in the industrial market of hormones.

The alliance with Organon also brought important benefits to Laqueur. In addition to delivering research materials, Organon paid well for his expertise, thus enabling Laqueur to expand his laboratory staff. Most importantly, Organon provided Laqueur with a window to the outside world, from which he could mass-produce and subsequently transfer sex hormones from the laboratory to the market. In the next sections, we shall follow Organon and Laqueur in their joint venture to market female and male sex hormones as new types of drugs in the 1920s and 1930s.