Diethylstilbestrol (DES) is an artificially created hormone first synthesized in the late 1930s. Doctors widely prescribed DES first to pregnant women to prevent miscarriages, and later as an emergency contraceptive pill and to treat breast cancer. However, in 1971, physicians showed a link between DES and vaginal cancer during puberty in the children of women who had taken DES while pregnant. Consequently, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned its use during pregnancy. In the late 2000s, several studies showed that the grandchildren of women who had consumed DES also suffered medical issues. By the early decades of the twenty-first century, roughly ten million people in the US had been exposed to DES, and three generations of individuals had suffered medical issues due to DES exposure. Researchers class DES as an endocrine disruptor, which affects the form and function of the hormone (endocrine) system.
Edgar Allen identified and outlined the role of female sex hormones and discovered estrogen in the early 1900s in the US. In 1923, Allen, through his research with mice, isolated the primary ovarian hormone, later renamed estrogen, from ovarian follicles and tested its effect through injections in the uterine tissues of mice. Allen’s work on estrogen, enabled researchers to further study hormones and the endocrine system.
In 1953, Raymond Greene and Katharina Dalton, who were doctors in the UK, published The Premenstrual Syndrome in the British Medical Journal. In their article, Dalton and Greene established the term premenstrual syndrome (PMS). The authors defined PMS as a cluster of symptoms that include bloating, breast pain, migraine-headache, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and irritability. The article states that the symptoms begin one to two weeks before menstruation during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, and they disappear upon the onset of the menstrual period. Menstruation is the monthly series of changes a woman's body undergoes in preparation for the possibility of pregnancy. Dalton and Greene described how progesterone affected women during different phases of their menstrual cycles. The paper convinced many about the phenomenon of PMS, and docotors and scientists adopted Dalton's and Green's term. The paper furthered research about the role of hormones in physiology and of conditions linked to the reproductive system.
Estrogen is the primary sex hormone in women and it functions during the reproductive menstrual cycle. Women have three major types of estrogen: estrone, estradiol, and estriol, which bind to and activate receptors within the body. Researchers discovered the three types of estrogen over a period of seven years, contributing to more detailed descriptions of the menstrual cycle. Each type of estrogen molecule contains a slightly different arrangement or number of atoms that in turn causes some of the estrogens to be more active than others. The different types of estrogen peak and wane throughout women's reproductive cycles, from normal menstruation to pregnancy to the cessation of menstruation (menopause). As scientists better explained the effects of estrogens, they used that information to develop oral contraceptives to control pregnancy, to map the menstrual cycle, and to create hormone therapies to regulate abnormal levels of estrogen.
Published in 1971, Adenocarcinoma of the Vagina: Association of Maternal Stilbestrol Therapy with Tumor Appearance in Young Women, by Arthurs L. Herbst and colleagues, was the first piece of literature connecting maternal use of the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), also called stilbestrol, with the development of a rare and severe form of vaginal cancer in young women. Diethylstilbestrol was later classified as an endocrine disruptor, a substance that disrupts the hormonal function of the body in those exposed to it during development or later in life. After Herbst and his team established the connection between DES and the occurrence of breast cancer, cervical cancer, infertility, and reproductive abnormalities, the US federal government banned use the drug for pregnant women. The article was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Sindell v. Abbott Laboratories was a 1980 California case that established the doctrine of market share liability for personal injury cases. For such liability, when a drug causes personal injury and the manufacturer of the drug cannot be identified, each producer is responsible for paying the settlement in proportion to the percentage of the market they supplied. Judith Sindell and Maureen Rogers brought the case against the producers of diethylstilbestrol (DES), which their mothers had taken during pregnancy to prevent miscarriage and other complications. Sindell and Rogers alleged that their mothers' ingestions of DES during pregnancy later caused Sindell and Rogers to develop cancers at the onset of puberty, but they could not identify the specific manufacturer of the drug. The market share liability ruling in Sindell allowed millions of DES-affected individuals to seek restitution for reproductive cancers caused by prenatal exposure to DES.
The article Experimental Studies on Congenital Malformations was published in the Journal of Chronic Diseases in 1959. The author, James G. Wilson, studied embryos and birth defects at the University of Florida Medical School in Gainesville, Florida. In his article, Wilson reviewed experiments on birds and mammals from the previous forty years to provide general principles and guidelines in the study of birth defects and teratogens, which are things that cause birth defects. Those principles included what species are convenient for conducting teratological research, what principles act in human embryological and fetal development, and what agents impact those processes. Wilson's article was one of the first attempts in the twentieth century to synthesize basic research conducted in the field of teratology. The article helped to establish teratology as a field in medicine during the twentieth century.
Eugen Steinach researched sex hormones and their effects on mammals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Europe. He experimented on rats by removing their testicles and implanting them elsewhere in their bodies, and he found that the testes interstitial cells produce male sex hormones. He developed the Steinach Rejuvenation Procedure, which he claimed could rejuvenate men by increasing their production of sex hormones. Steinach’s work on female sex hormones and on ovarian extracts led to the development of the first standardized injectable estrogen. Steinach’s research on reproductive hormones helped researchers explain the roles of sex hormones and develop hormone drugs.
Edward Charles Dodds researched the function and effects of natural and artificial hormones on the endocrine system in England during the twentieth century. Though he first worked with hormones such as insulin, Dodds focused on the effects of estrogen in the body and how to replicate those effects with artificial substances. In 1938, along with chemist Robert Robinson, Dodds synthesized the first synthetic estrogen called diethylstilbestrol. Despite the wide use of diethylstilbestrol to treat a variety of hormonal problems like miscarriages during pregnancy and menopause, Dodds argued against the use of synthetic substances in the human body due to their unknown effects. Just before Dodds's death, his hypotheses were confirmed when researchers showed that people exposed to diethylstilbestrol often developed cancer. Dodds was one of the first researchers to investigate the endocrine or hormone system in humans, and his research led to the creation of other synthetic hormones used in contraceptive pills and hormone replacements.
In the early 1920s, researchers Edgar Allen and Edward Adelbert Doisy conducted an experiment that demonstrated that ovarian follicles, which produce eggs in mammals, also contain and produce what they called the primary ovarian hormone, later renamed estrogen. In their experiment, Doisy and Allen extracted estrogen from the ovarian follicles of hogs and proved that they had isolated estrogen by using a measurement later renamed the Allen-Doisy test. Allen and Doisy’s 1923 experiment to isolate estrogen showed it was made within the ovaries and also established a method for isolating the sex hormone. That method provided a basis for future research on hormones. Later researchers showed that estrogen functions in the menstrual cycles of primates by signaling for the tissue lining the uterus (endometrium) to thicken in preparation for possible implantation of a fertilized egg.