THE QUEST FOR OVARIES AND FEMALE URINE
Although the problem of gaining access to research materials had been solved, scientists continued searching for new sources. The main reason for this was the enormous expense of gonadal material.5 Scientists working on female sex hormones were eager to find sources less expensive than cows’ ovaries. Horse ovaries happened to be less expensive than cows’ ovaries, but horse ovaries were not easily available because few horses were slaughtered at that time. Another possible source was the human placenta. Owing to the expense and scarcity of ovaries, many investigators turned their attention to this more abundant and relatively inexpensive source (Doisy 1939:848). However, this source was not a good substitute for cows’ ovaries because placental extracts could not be purified to the same extent as ovarian extracts.
But the quest for new sources would soon take a happy turn. In 1926, two German scientists happened to find the long-sought-for source: human urine (Corner 1965:15). S. Ascheim, a gynecologist at the Gyneco-Pathological Laboratory of the City Hospital in Berlin, was involved in developing diagnostic tests for disorders in menstruation and fertility (Zondek and Finkelstein 1966:6). Gynecologists analyzed blood, and later urine, to detect differences in hormonal content between healthy women and their patients.6 Together with his colleague Bernhard Zondek, Ascheim also analyzed urine from their pregnant patients. This last endeavor would turn out to be the moment that many colleagues had eagerly awaited. Urine from pregnant women—even in the raw state—happened to be far more active than the best ovarian extracts so far obtained.7 Bernhard Zondek acknowledged the relevance of their achievement for his colleagues outside gynecology. Through his connections with the Dutch pharmaceutical company Organon, Zondek promoted this new source.8
The discovery of Ascheim and Zondek had a significant impact on the relationship between the three groups involved in research on female sex hormones. In this period, the gynecologists regained a somewhat stronger position in the emerging field of sex endocrinology. To gain access to the new source of urine, the actors had to rely on the gynecologists: scientists could obtain the urine of pregnant women only from gynecological clinics. This became a new source of inexpensive and easily available material for research on female sex hormones,9 and signaled the end of the period in which research was constrained by the scarcity of research materials. Urine proved to be an ideal source. As a liquid, it could be extracted with ease; owing to its composition there were only small amounts of inert products in the extract; and what was even more important, the supply of urine was both abundant and inexpensive.
In addition, the position of the laboratory scientists changed radically during this period. With the introduction of urine, chemical analytical methods became more important: the new discipline of biochemistry consequently became increasingly involved in research on sex hormones. The biochemists had mastered one technique that gynecologists and their colleagues in the laboratory did not possess—the technique of making invisible female and male substances visible. Following the discovery of Ascheim and Zondek, chemists devoted their energies to the isolation of female sex hormones from the urine of pregnant women. The new source stimulated chemical work, and turned out to be one of the major factors contributing to the isolation and chemical identification of female sex hormones (Doisy 1939:851). Within less than three years from Ascheim and Zondek’s 1926 publication, European and American research groups reported the isolation and identification of female sex hormone from the urine of pregnant women.
The use of urine as a research material reinforced the relationship between scientists and the pharmaceutical industry. Although the use of urine solved many problems, individual scientists still had to spend quite some time in collecting the material they needed.10 Those scientists working in close cooperation with pharmaceutical industries could profit once more from this relationship. In some cases the pharmaceutical company undertook both the collection and the processing of pregnant women’s urine.11 Scientists could simply obtain the extracted hormones from the companies.
In this period, laboratory scientists were strengthening their position. With the introduction of urine and the application of chemical methods, research gradually shifted from the gynecologists to the laboratory scientists. The individual gynecologist of the earlier days, experimenting on a small scale with extracts prepared from ovaries obtained from the clinic, was replaced by laboratory scientists working with enormous quantities of research material provided by the pharmaceutical companies.
In the years to come, gynecologists also lost their strategic position as suppliers. In 1930, Zondek suggested that the urine of pregnant mares was superior to human urine as a source of female sex hormones. Now scientists were no longer dependent on the gynecological clinic to obtain the material they needed. This did not in itself greatly affect the direction of research, because the estrogenic hormone had already been isolated from the urine of pregnant women. The “second” female sex hormone, progesterone, was isolated in 1934 from animal ovaries (Parkes 1966:23). However, the urine of pregnant mares turned out to be of great importance for the commercial production of female sex hormones by pharmaceutical companies, for it was even less expensive than human urine (Figure 4.3). For the second time, Organon followed Zondek’s advice (Tausk 1978:32). In the years to follow,
Figure 4.3 Organon’s staff celebrate a landmark in the manufacturing ofMenformon (female sex hormone) in the 1936-1937 working season: the use of the millionth liter of mares’ urine
Source: Organon Archives
Organon processed millions of liters of mares’ urine (an operation that could not remain unnoticed by the people living near the factory!). To collect this urine, Organon organized special campaigns among horse owners.12 One can imagine that farmers (and even the Ministry of Agriculture) were most surprised to discover that they could sell the liquid waste products from their mares for prices equal to those of cows’ milk (Tausk 1978:119).
Clearly, the introduction of urine had an impact on the position of the three groups. In the late 1920s and the early 1930s, research on female sex hormones definitely shifted from the clinic to the laboratory. Although gynecologists had temporarily strengthened their position as suppliers of female urine, they totally lost their position in research on sex hormones. The laboratory scientists and the pharmaceutical companies, however, strengthened their positions in the network. Thus, of the three groups previously involved in research on female sex hormones, only two retained their position: the pharmaceutical companies and the laboratory scientists. Moreover, inside the laboratory a shift in positions had also taken place: after the late 1920s, biochemists became increasingly involved in the subject of sex hormones, and partly took over the subject from the physiologists who had done the pioneer work in the laboratory (Corner 1965:4, 15).13