Uruguayans invented the mammogram and the birth control pill

As 10% of all women get breast cancer, the mammogram is arguably among the most important techniques of the last century in advancing women's health.
By Karen A Higgs
Alejandro Zaffaroni - inventor of the Pill
Last updated on March 12, 2014

In 2014, Alejandro Zaffaroni, one of the inventors of the birth control pill, died. Born in Montevideo in 1923, he graduated from the University of Montevideo. As both his parents were dead, he decided to take a cargo ship to New York after receiving a Fulbright scholarship to study in the USA.

Zaffaroni was part of a Mexican team which created the Pill. He also played a similarly significant role in the development of the nicotine patch, the DNA chip and corticosteroids. According to his New York Times obituary he was one of the most influential biotech entrepreneurs ever. The Scientist called him a “biotech superstar“.

Alejandro Zaffaroni - inventor of the Pill
The creator of tens of high tech companies and a researcher in his own right, Zaffaroni was born and educated in Montevideo. Photo: Zaffaroni Foundation

Uruguay has a highly-educated population by standards anywhere

This doesn’t surprise me. Though Uruguayans complain about their education system today (show me a country where people don’t lament falling standards), free primary school education has been compulsory since 1876  (link in Spanish to the Uruguayan Education Reform of 1876).

Even today the public university (the Universidad de la República) is free.

And Uruguay is the first country in the world to completely roll out the One Laptop Per Child initiative since 2006. Every child in state-run education in both primary and secondary school has a XO laptop.

I actually attend the Montevideo clinic where mammograms were first invented. It’s in the city centre about 5 minutes drive from my house.

The clinic’s founder Raul Leborgne, a radiologist from Montevideo, devised an apparatus in 1949 that would squeeze a patient’s breast to hold it flat while an x-ray was taken. He reported his findings in a landmark publication in 1951. His insight and discovery has been used to save over 1.6 million lives.

Medical Discovery News says that “Given that almost ten percent of all women get breast cancer, you could argue the mammogram is among the most important techniques of the last century in advancing women’s health.”

More reasons to love Uruguay… especially if you are a woman.




3 Responses

  1. Hello. Greetings from Washington DC and Toronto, Canada. I am a radiologist nearing retirement. My speciality is in breast imaging. I am writing a research article about mammography and want to credit Dr Raul Leborgne with his insights to reduce X-ray energy and flatten the breast gently. He was the first to emphasize the importance of radiographic technique to demonstrate detail of microcalcifications. When was Dr Leborgne born? When did he die? Is there any biographical material you could share that is published in English?
    I am a member of American Roentgen Ray Society but am unable to obtain archived issues of the journal AJR with Dr Leborgne’s articles. Thank you. Eva Chapin MD 202-80-2062

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