The life of Russell Marker
Russell Earl Marker was born on his father's farm near Hagerstown, Maryland, on March 12, 1902. After receiving
a B.S. degree in 1923 from the University of Maryland and an M.S. degree in physical chemistry in 1924, he began
doctoral research with Morris Kharasch. Within a year, Marker had completed enough work for his thesis but was
told he still needed to take some required physical chemistry courses, which he considered a waste of time.
Kharasch predicted that he would end up as a "Urine Analyst" if he didn't complete these Ph.D. requirements, but
Marker "accepted his challenge and left the university in June 1925." Later, Kharasch officially approved Marker's
thesis on organomercurials and quaternary alkyl hydrocarbons. Although Marker never received a Ph.D. from Maryland,
the university awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Science in 1987.
In 1926, Marker married Mildred Collins (1899-1985) and began work at the Ethyl Corp. There, he invented the gasoline
"octane number" rating system and, in the process, discovered that increased branching in hydrocarbons reduced knocking.
The oil refining companies immediately retooled their processes to maximize branch chain hydrocarbons to improve gasoline
By 1928, Marker believed he had enough hydrocarbon experience and began research with P. A. Levene at the Rockefeller
Institute. Over the next six years, Marker did enough research for 32 papers on optical rotation and molecular
configurations. By 1934, Marker wanted to change his focus to steroid research. When Levene refused, Marker accepted
a position funded by Parke-Davis at The Pennsylvania State College.
During 1936-1937, Parke-Davis sent Marker a steroid extract from the urine of pregnant cows and mares. From this,
he isolated pregnanediol, which he converted by known chemistry to 35 grams of progesterone (then, the most ever
produced in one lot). Over the next six years at Penn State, Marker and his small research group did most of his
celebrated research. Parke-Davis provided annual funding that eventually reached $10,000. Ultimately, more than 160
papers in the steroid area were published. In 1944, Marker cofounded Syntex and, in 1945, Botanica-mex. In 1949, his
report that botogenin should be the best cortisone precursor received wide publicity.
Soon after that, Marker retired from chemistry and essentially disappeared. Although sporadic sightings occurred, he
often was reported to be dead or "in an insane asylum." After retirement, Marker actually spent most of his time in
Mexico City and at home in State College, Pennsylavania. He became interested in three great 18th-century silversmiths
and began commissioning Mexican reproductions of their works. To guarantee that each piece was correct, he spent much
time in museums and other collections.
Marker reentered public life in 1969 to accept an award from the Mexican Chemical Society at the VI International
Symposium on the Chemistry of Natural Products in Mexico City. Other awards followed, including one at the 1975 Chemical
Congress of North America. Marker also was rediscovered by the popular press and featured in articles, documentaries,
and even a 90-minute German TV biographical "docudrama." In later life, his philanthropies included an endowed professorship
at Penn State and several endowed lecture series at Penn State and the University of Maryland. Marker died March 23, 1995.