Leon Goldberg: Creator of DES (Diethylstilbestrol)


Leon Golberg (August 22, 1915 - May 3, 1987) synthesized diethylstilbestrol (DES) in early 1938 as a graduate student at the University of Oxford. DES was used medically as a synthetic estrogen and as a growth stimulant for domestic animals before its toxicity was fully realized. In the 1940s it was prescribed by physicians to prevent miscarriages as an off-label use. Despite weak evidence of its effectiveness, the FDA approved it for use in prevention of miscarriage in 1947.

In 1971, the New England Journal of Medicine published a report by physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital on the association of DES therapy with adenocarcinoma of the vagina in young women exposed during their first trimester of pregnancy. In November 1971 the FDA advised physicians to stop prescribing DES to pregnant women because it was linked to a rare vaginal cancer in female offspring.

DES, a powerful synthetic estrogen, is a potent example of intergenerational toxicity. We are exposed to numerous weaker synthetic estrogens such as bisphenol-A (BPA) without fully understanding their potential developmental health effects. We continue to learn and relearn the important lesson of looking (doing research) before we leap (starting exposure).

HistoryAmanda Verdery Young