In 1938, DES (diethylstilbestrol) was the first synthetic estrogen to be created. DES PILL BOTTLES . One of the major DES producers was Eli Lilly, which used a sales force of drug representatives that heavily promoted DES to doctors, who were urged to prescribe it to their pregnant patients. LIlly was so proud of its sales force they even ran advertisements about it in medical journals! This FASCINATING AD is from the 1940s and comes to us from the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy.For a historical perspective see the DES Timeline.
Never patented, DES was marketed using hundreds of brand names in the mistaken belief it prevented miscarriages and premature deliveries.
DES was prescribed primarily between 1938 and 1971 (but not limited to those years). It was considered the standard of care for problem pregnancies from the late 1940s well into the 1960s in the U.S. and was widely prescribed during that time. Eli Lilly DES pill bottles. British DES pill box. DES was sometimes even included in prenatal vitamins so there are many individuals who were not actually given a prescription for DES itself, yet were exposed to it anyway. DES was given by injection, pill and vaginal suppository (sometimes called pessaries).
In the early 1970s cases of a rare vaginal/cervical cancer were being diagnosed in young women. A cluster of them at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston raised alarm among doctors who couldn't figure out what was going on. It took a persistent DES Mother to unravel the mystery. She told doctors her belief the DES she was prescribed while pregnant was responsible. Ultimately, she was proven right.
In November 1971 the FDA told doctors to stop prescribing DES for their pregnant patients, however it was never banned. Specifically, the FDA said DES was contraindicated for pregnancy use. In some rare cases American doctors either didn’t hear of, or simply ignored the message and continued prescribing DES. Internationally, DES use during pregnancy continued for many subsequent years. In September 2000 the FDA withdraws approval of DES for use in
humans. (It is still successfully used by veterinarians to treat incontinence in dogs).
In the United States, an estimated 5–10 million people were exposed to DES, including women who were prescribed DES while pregnant, and the children born of those pregnancies.
Now researchers are investigating whether DES health issues are extending into the next generation, the so-called DES Grandchildren. As study results come in, there is growing evidence that this group has been adversely impacted by a drug prescribed to their grandmothers.
Interestingly, years after developing the chemical formulation for DES, its creator, Sir E. Charles Dodds was knighted for his accomplishment. It was fully expected that his synthetic estrogen would help women worldwide. At the time it was not known how dangerous this drug would be to developing fetuses.
Because he was a master of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London Dodds has a fascinating stained glass window at its Hall to represent his coat of arms. In a nutshell, the image shows a woman at the top holding a book open to the formula for DES. Further down, a knight's helmet signifies that Dodds was knighted for creating DES. The hand hanging down shows Dodd's work in medicine and the pierced crabs (flanking the hand) represent Dodd's interest in fighting cancer. The motto: "Deeds Not Thoughts" was developed by Dodds. Years later, he raised concerns about DES but by then very few in the medical field were listening.
National Cancer Institute DES Fact Sheet provides an up to date run down of adverse health impacts for DES Mothers (bullet 6) DES Daughters, DES Sons (bullet 5) and DES Granddaughters (bullet 7).