In 1938, DES (diethylstilbestrol) was the first synthetic estrogen to be created. For a historical perspective see the DES Timeline. (The Timeline follows)
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. DES was sometimes even included in prenatal vitamins so there are many individuals who were not actually given DES but were exposed to it anyway. DES was given by injection, pill and vaginal suppository (sometimes called pessaries).
In April 1971 the FDA told doctors to stop using 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 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.
1938 – DES is created as first synthetic estrogen by Sir E. Charles Dodds in England.
1940 – French medical journal reports that DES caused mammary tumors in male mice.
1947 – DES formally granted FDA approval for use as a miscarriage preventative.
Harvard husband and wife team of physician and biochemist George and Olive Smith publish report extolling use of high doses of DES during pregnancy. This report launches wide-scale use of DES.
1953 – DES proven ineffective when William Dieckmann, M.D., of University of Chicago’s Lying-In Hospital conducts first controlled, randomized, double-blind study on use of DES during pregnancy. Published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the research reveals women receiving DES suffered a higher rate of miscarriages, yet DES continued to be prescribed to women until 1971. (Blame pharmaceutical companies for heavily promoting DES use to doctors)
1959 – U.S. Agriculture Department bans DES as a growth stimulant for chickens and lambs after high DES levels in these animals produced side effects, such as male breast growth in humans.
1971 – Arthur Herbst, M.D. et al publish report in New England Journal of Medicine linking DES exposure before birth, to a rare vaginal cancer in girls and young women – clear cell adenocarcinoma.
On the basis of this study the FDA issues a Drug Bulletin to physicians, stating that DES is contra-indicated for use in pregnant women. The FDA did not ban DES, but only urged doctors to stop prescribing it for their pregnant patients. Most, but not all, stopped.
1970s – Researchers study the effects of DES on DES Daughters and find significant abnormalities in the reproductive organs of these women, which often result in infertility or serious problems in pregnancy.
1975 – National Cancer Institute (NCI) begins DES-Adenosis (DESAD) project, the first government-sponsored study designed to “assess the magnitude and severity of the health hazard to DES-exposed female offspring.”
1978 – DES Action is founded as the national non-profit consumer group for people exposed to DES.
Secretary of the Department of Health, Education & Welfare, Joseph Califano, convenes the National DES Task Force. It was charged with reviewing all aspects of the DES problem and with making recommendations for research and health care of the exposed.
The National DES Task Force issues physician advisory, recommending doctors review their records and notify patients who were prescribed DES while pregnant. (Most doctors, however, did not).
1979 – First successful legal trial over DES injuries. Joyce Bichler, 25-year old cancer survivor, is awarded half a million dollars in case against Eli Lilly.
1980 – DES banned in cattle feed.
1992 – After years of grassroots organizing led by DES Action, Congress passes the first federal legislation mandating a national program of research, outreach and education about DES.
1993 – National Cancer Institute (NCI) announces grants for a program of public and health care provider education about DES.
1995 – National Cancer Institute establishes committee to study non-cancer effects resulting from DES exposure; consumer education booklets published by NCI.
1997 – Congress passes legislation authorizing renewed funding for DES research and education.
2003 – CDC’s DES Update launches national education effort with website and publications to educate DES-exposed individuals and their health care providers.
DES Action provides support, information, and advocacy for individuals affected by exposure to the synthetic estrogen drug diethylstilbestrol (DES). Click the link below to access their site for additional information.