DES Timeline

1938: Diethylstilbestrol (DES) created.

DES was the first synthetic estrogen ever synthesized; it was cheap to produce, more potent than natural estrogen, and could be taken orally. In the rush to make and market DES, Eli Lilly became one of the drug’s major manufacturers. In America alone there were 267 drug companies that made and distributed DES and other similar synthetic estrogens because it was unpatented and easily produced.

No controlled studies were ever conducted by the drug companies to determine the effectiveness or safety of DES for use during pregnancy, even after some scientists started questioning its efficacy in the 1950s. As early as 1953, research revealed that DES did not work – that DES actually brought about higher rates of premature birth and infant mortality – yet DES continued to be prescribed to pregnant women for decades.

From the start, studies showed that DES promoted cancer in lab animals:

1938: Mice exposed to DES developed breast cancer.

1939: A rat exposed to DES developed mammary carcinoma.

1939-1940: Mice exposed to DES were born with malformed reproductive organs.

1941: DES approved for medical use in human beings.

Despite the evidence from animal studies, the FDA approved the use of DES to treat vaginitis, gonorrhea, menopausal symptoms, and to suppress lactation – but not for use during pregnancy. Once FDA approval was granted for these limited uses, however, there was nothing to prevent drug salesmen from suggesting, and physicians from prescribing, DES for any other medical condition — menstrual problems, morning sickness, infertility, and many other applications.

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.

1952: Some scientists began to publicly question the efficacy of DES.

The largest and best publicized controlled study of DES at the University of Chicago in 1953 showed it had “no beneficial effect whatsoever” in the prevention of miscarriage, and, in fact, DES brought about higher rates of premature birth and infant mortality. These findings were supported by several other studies done in the 1950s.

1959: DES banned in chicken and lambs.

DES was used widely in agriculture beginning in 1941 to fatten livestock and chickens. Exposed male agricultural workers suffered sterility and breast growth as a consequence. When high DES levels in poultry produced similar symptoms in consumers as well, the FDA banned the use of DES in chicken and lambs in 1959.

Late 1960s: Six of the seven leading obstetrics textbooks stated that DES had no effect in preventing miscarriage in any group of patients. DES was still being prescribed to pregnant women and touted as a “wonder drug.”

1970: Unprecedented appearance of rare cancer in young women. A rare vaginal cancer, CCA (clear cell adenocarcinoma), began to show up in unprecedented numbers in young women. There were eight such cases at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston alone. One of the mothers raised the question of whether her daughter’s cancer might be connected to DES exposure in utero.

1971: Doctors confirmed the link between CCA and DES.

Doctors discovered the DES link in 1971 and published their findings in the April 1971 issue of New England Journal of Medicine. News of the cancer cases made national headlines. However, the FDA did not act on this information until public pressure, including Congressional Hearings, forced the FDA to  contraindicate DES  during pregnancy  in November 1971. The FDA did not ban DES for human use.

Some physicians in the U.S. continued to prescribe DES for a few years to pregnant women despite the FDA warning.

Companies continued to sell DES overseas even after 1971; while it was no longer used in most western European nations by the late 1970s, DES continued to be sold through the 1980s in much of the rest of the world.

1975: Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA)’s DES hearings were held in February 1975 on Capitol Hill.

1975: DES Action formed.

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.”

1979: Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) chaired the Senate Health Subcommittee, which received testimony from Sidney Wolfe about women and drugs including DES, on August 1, 1979.

1979: DES banned in animal feed.

Cattle breeders fought regulation of DES in feed until the Department of Agriculture finally banned it in 1979, but there were reports of its covert use through the early 1980s.

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.

1982: DES Cancer Network formed.

1985: US President Ronald Reagan issued a proclamation on April 25, 1985 for National DES Awareness Week. He is the only US president ever to do so.

1992: National Institute of Health (NIH) convened the first-ever meeting on the long-term effects of DES.

1992: DES bill passed.

Congress unanimously passed the DES Education and Research Amendment – chief sponsors Rep. Louise Slaughter [D-NY] and Sen. Tom Harkin [D-IA] – providing funding to the National Institute of Health for research on mothers and children, and for a public and physician education campaign. Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) is the one who asked Senator Harkin and Rep. Louise Slaughter to be the chief sponsors of the DES Bill.

1993: Long-term DES research is expanded.

The NIH began new studies on the long-term medical effects of DES, such as breast cancer in the daughters, immune system disorders, and reproductive problems in the sons, as well as the long-term health effects of the various treatments for CCA, the cancer caused by DES exposure. This research never would have happened without the foundation being laid by Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) in the ’70s and his support of the DES Bill in 1992.

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.

2011: On February 22, 2011, US Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and US Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) received a 3-page response from the FDA, per their joint letter about a DES apology. The FDA’s letter did not contain an official apology from the federal government for the DES drug disaster. However, it acknowledged the devastating health consequences of DES, explained FDA initiatives to prevent future drug disasters, and talked about DES as a “tragedy.”

The FDA closed the letter by writing, “We hope that our new tools for identifying, monitoring and mitigating drug risks will prevent other tragedies like those brought out by the widespread use of DES.  We are committed to providing the public with timely and accurate drug safety information and we recognize the critical responsibility that the FDA has to protect the safety of the public’s health.”

View Senator Kerry and Senator Brown’s February 24, 2011 joint press release entitled “Kerry, Brown: FDA Finally Acknowledges Prescription Drug Tragedy” HERE.

2012: On January 19, 2012, a federal judge in Boston ordered 14 drug companies to negotiate settlements for 53 DES Daughters who claim their breast cancer was caused by an anti-miscarriage drug their mothers took decades ago. Because the mediation on April 3-4th was unsuccessful between the parties, Federal Judge Marianne B. Bowler set expedited trial for the first bellwether DES breast cancer case on January 7, 2013.

2013: Historic DES Breast Cancer Trial, Boston, MA, USA. Plaintiffs the Melnick sisters ( defended by Aaron Levine & Associates) took Eli Lilly to Court to hold them accountable for their breast cancer as a result of being exposed to DES in utero. On the second day of the trial, Eli Lilly offered the sisters a settlement.

Note Eli Lilly dominated the DES market (98%) and actively marketed the drug to prevent “accidents of pregnancy.” Eli Lilly even published and distributed a book for physicans to capture this market share and failed to warn them of the risks.

To this day, Eli Lilly et al have never apologized or accepted responsibility for the DES tragedy. Nevertheless, they have paid millions in out-of-court settlements and verdicts to DES Daughters and Sons who suffered injuries from their exposure.

9 Responses to “DES Timeline”

  1. Susan Wallace Burns at 3:34 pm #

    I am a DES Daughter…Thank you for all the info you give to us!

  2. Suzanne Perot at 2:57 pm #

    Interesting website. Behind the scenes at the drug companies:

    These guys make a lot of bucks. Sickness is a good thing in America 😦

  3. Maureen Tobin at 3:47 pm #

    Is there recignition about pre-term labor in DES daughters? Both my pregnancies resulted in Preterm labor the first at 22 weeks and the second at 24 weeks. I’m thankful everyday my children survived and are happy and healthy.

  4. Penny Mack at 8:09 am #

    I am a 52yowf whose mother took DES to become pregnant with me. I have been diagnosed with Arnold Chiari I, Seizures,
    Secondary dx Benign Essential Blepharospasm. Am minus 2 ribs on left side, have extra breast tissue under right arm. Am functionally blind d/t the Blepharospasm & have been on Social Security sine 47yoa. Lost lucrative career as a Licensed Nursing Facility Administrator d/t these rare genetic disorders

  5. lisa at 8:41 am #

    I am also a DES Daughter, as a young adolesent I had frequent problems that escalated upon my teen age years. Pap smears always came back positive, but the OB/GYN would just rescheduale the same procedure multiple times. At the age of 19 diagnosesd with Endremetrious, told it was nothing to worry about. At age of 22 I was then diagnosed with Cervical Cancer. Scheduled for a partial hysterectormy to eliminate the problem. Found out I was 3 months pregnate upon lab work done prior to surgery. Was informed to get a “theraputic abortion” for medical reasons. Refused to terminate my child, and chose to continue the pregnacy. Many difficult medical issue’s till April of 1979 went into pre mature labor, put on complete bed rest. Son was born in June of 1979, only one month early. Born with Epilepsy, Narcolepsi, severe allergies.


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