Sara Borrell Ruiz (1917-1999)

The modest appearance of the slight figure of Sara Borrell hardly reflected her research skills and academic trajectory as one of the earliest Spanish experts in hormones.
Sara Borrell Ruiz (1917-1999)

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She was born and grew up in a liberal, open-minded family, whose members had supported women’s higher education, Her grandmother, Clementina Albéniz, was a teacher at the Spanish Association for Women’s Education (Asociación para la Enseñanza de la Mujer). Her father, a member of the leftist party Izquierda Republicana, was imprisoned at the end of the Spanish Civil War and purged during the early, strict policy of the Franco dictatorship against people who were considered as disloyal. Borrell wanted to study agronomic engineering but was not admitted to the preparatory school. In 1933, she began her studies in Science at the University of Madrid. During the war (1936-39), the university remained closed, but Sara Borrell was able to graduate immediately after, in 1940. She obtained her PhD in 1944 for her research on the composition of the waters of the Tajo river, for which she was awarded degree honours. Following the advice of José María Albareda secretary-general of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), in 1946 Sara Borrell went as a postdoctoral student to the Hanna Dairy Research Institute en Ayr, Scotland, to be trained in milk proteins under Norman C. Wright. She was appointed assistant professor of Bromatology at the University of Madrid in 1941 and resigned in 1949 to take the post of researcher with tenure at the CSIC. Dr. Gregorio Marañón created in 1950 an Institute of Experimental Endocrinology at the CSIC and  invited Sara Borrell to do research on the biochemistry of hormones. She accepted and completed her training in this new field again abroad. During 1951-1952 she worked with Leslie J. Harris on ACTH at the Dunn Nutritional Laboratory, Cambridge, and later at the Courtauld Institute for Chemistry at Middlesex Hospital in London with Edward C. Dodds, Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the synthesis of estrogens. In 1953, with a grant from the Institute of International Education (New York), Sara Borrell worked on the biochemistry of steroid hormones under Gregory Pincus at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. Slightly later, Pincus would develop the oral contraceptive pill. Pincus tried unsuccessfully to keep Borrell collaborating with him, but she was determined to go back to Spain. 

In 1963, a section on Steroids was created for Borrell at the new Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas (CSIC). That same year, the Spanish Society of Biochemistry (SEB) was founded and she was among its founding members. She contributed to comparative endocrinology with her work on the metabolism of adrenal hormones. From her first publication in Nature, in 1952, she continued to publish in international journals. Her research on hormone analysis was published by the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, the Biochemical Journal, the Journal of Endocrinology and Hormone Research. She did also a great deal of work collaborating with clinical medicine on pathological metabolisms in patients with complex diagnosis.

Many young researchers were trained under her guidance and a handful of them were officially supervised by her. After 43 years of research work, she retired without tributes. After the death of her mother, she was seen walking with her father at the country estate her family owned, La Granjilla, the old house built by the Spanish king Philippe II to keep an eye on the construction of El Escorial monastery. The Instituto de Salud Carlos III, of the ministry of Health, gave Sara Borrell’s name to a Grant program of postdoctoral training that is still in existence. 

Sara Borrell Ruiz (1917-1999)


  1. Entrevista de la autora a Sara Borrell en 1995 y documentos conservados por su discípulo y sobrino José Borrell.
  2. Santesmases MJ. 2000. Mujeres científicas en España (1940-1970): profesionalización y modernización social. Madrid. Instituto de la Mujer.
  3. Santesmases MJ. 2001. Entre Cajal y Ochoa. Ciencias biomédicas en la España de Franco (Madrid: CSIC).
  4. Santesmases MJ. 2000. Severo Ochoa and the biomedical sciences in Spain under Franco, 1959-1975”. Isis 91 (4): 706-734.
  5. Foto: Amer, 1946. Archivo de la familia Borrell.

María Jesús Santesmases
Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales (CSIC), Madrid

This article is the English translation of a Spanish version published by the Spanish Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (SEBBM): 

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