Russell E. Marker

Born: March 12, 1902 | Hagerstown, MD, US
Died: March 3, 1995 | Wernersville, PA, US

Russell E. Marker discusses his early life, including his childhood in a farming community, as well as his education, including his time at the University of Maryland. Marker recalls his positions at the Naval Powder Factory and the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation, where he devised the octane rating system. Marker also talks about his interest in synthesizing human hormones from plants and his travels to Mexico to examine indigenous plant life. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0068
No. of pages: 45
Minutes: 174

Interview Sessions

Jeffrey L. Sturchio
17 April 1987
Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania

Abstract of Interview

Russell Marker begins the interview by describing his childhood in a farming community in Maryland, his early schooling, and his growing interest in organic chemistry while a student at the University of Maryland. He then talks about his first jobs at the Naval Powder Factory and the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation, where he devised the octane rating system. Marker then discusses his subsequent move to the Rockefeller Institute. He elaborates on his interest in synthesizing human hormones from plants, resulting in a fellowship at Penn State and his first travels to Mexico to examine indigenous plant life. Marker then describes his laboratory work and business ventures in Mexico, including his role in forming the companies Syntex and Botanica-Mex. Marker concludes by discussing his leaving chemical research and newfound interest in silver reproduction. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1923 University of Maryland, College Park BS Chemistry
1924 University of Maryland, College Park MS Chemistry
1925 University of Maryland, College Park Completed thesis requirements for Ph.D.

Professional Experience

Naval Powder Factory

1925 to 1926

Ethyl Gasoline Corporation

1926 to 1928

Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research

1928 to 1935

Pennsylvania State University

1935 to 1936
Fellow, Department of Chemistry
Assistant Professor, Department of Chemisty
Professor, Department of Chemistry

Syntex S.A.

1944 to 1945

Botanica-Mex S.A.

1945 to 1946

Hormosynth S.A.

1946 to 1949


Year(s) Award

Honorary Member, Mexican Chemical Society


The Russell Marker Lectures in the Chemical Sciences, Pennsylvania State University

Table of Contents

Family, Childhood and Early Education

Born and raised in Hagerstown, Maryland, the oldest of three children. Father works on different farms until he can afford his own. Two years of schooling before high school. No chemistry or physics as high school student because only commercial courses are offered.

University of Maryland

University of Maryland looking for students after World War I. Enrolled in summer classes by father. Receives good grades and is accepted as a full-time student. Develops interest in organic chemistry and laboratory work. Receives fellowship for his graduate work. Completes thesis requirements for Ph.D. but does not complete necessary academic courses.

First Job Experiences and Marriage

Accepts position with the Naval Powder Factory. Stays for seven months while searching for other employment. Marries in 1925. Employed by the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation in Yonkers, NY - works on organometallics and octanes. Meets P. A. Levene from his association with Frank Whitmore. Is asked to produce a compound for the Rockefeller Institute. Offered position there as an organic chemist.

The Rockefeller Institute and Penn State

Investigates the Walden inversion. Develops strong interest in hormones and is awarded a research grant at Penn State. Becomes full professor. Travels to Europe for first time, meets fellow chemists. Begins work with pregnanediol. Reaction of other organic chemists. Marker Degradation.


Problems in assembling equipment and chemicals. Initial work involves local plant life, including Dioscoreas. Dangers of living and working in Mexico during World War II. Develops relationship with Park, Davis Company.

Formation of Syntex and Botanica-Mex

Meets Federcio Lehmann and Emerik Somlo of Laboratorios Hormona. Formation of Syntex to produce progesterone. Cheated out of money by Somlo. Formation of Botanica- Mex. Workers encounter many security problems. Becomes affiliated with the Richter family. Problems with production; steady travel back to Mexico becomes necessary. Botanica-Mex sold to SmithKline & French.

Publication of Papers and Awards

Publishes papers on sterols while still in Mexico. Summary paper of work on steroidal sapogenins is published. Training of Ph.D. and postdoc students. Advantages of working with sterols. Awarded at the meeting of the Chemical Congress in Mexico.

Retirement from Chemical Research

Classified work for the United States and Mexico. Develops interest in silver reproduction. Divides time between Mexico, State College and Europe. Describes pieces of silver collection.


About the Interviewer

Jeffrey L. Sturchio

Jeffrey L. Sturchio is president and CEO of the Global Health Council. Previously he served as vice president of corporate responsibility at Merck & Co., president of the Merck Company Foundation, and chairman of the U.S. Corporate Council on Africa. Sturchio is currently a visiting scholar at the Institute for Applied Economics and the Study of Business Enterprise at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Healthy Next Generation of the World Economic Forum. He received an AB in history from Princeton University and a PhD in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania.