The Pill and Why You Should Talk to People at Parties


Since we met 2010, there have been a series of trend pieces looking at the 50th anniversary of the Pill, the crazymaking nobabymaker. May is the actual anniversary month, and I bet once we hit May 1, there will be another big round of analyses. When I look at the history of the pill, I am surprised by how young it is, and that we are only the second or third generation to know of it, and perhaps the first to assume it (and access to it) as part of adulthood. Most women I know have at least tried the Pill as they navigated the great art of birth control, and that first prescription was a marked moment where they recognized the specific revolutions of their body.

And, most friends now rely on other protocol for contraception. But, the Pill is the gateway, that first commitment to the idea that contraception is part of the plan. And, it’s formal. There is an appointment, discussion, a piece of paper, a record. A scouring of information (that first compact, with the pamphlet that has so many rules about days and times and symptoms, on the same paper they print tampon instructions on), and a daily reminder that you are not going to have a child.

I’m sure the round of posts and articles to appear this month will echo, expand, and reverberate the themes of reproduction, autonomy, women’s health, and pop culture. We get to talk about how our bodies our significant, and the weirdness of chemically controlling them. It’s an easy topic to get long winded, overly metaphorical, and melodramatic/nostalgic about. But, I look forward to it, and offer that over the next few weeks, we open an epistolary conversation (perhaps three weeks on, one week off?) about any and all of it.

For starters, here’s the Pill as a lesson in networking. PBS offers an outstanding history as part of The American Experience, with complete timeline and gallery, including one intern’s post about cataloging birth control pills for the Smithsonian. The history here is amazing, and the entire timeline is worth reading.  Here is the networking bit:

  • Katharine McCormick is one of the first women to graduate from MIT (this is 1904)…her major, helpfully, is biology.  She is also mega-rich–she marries Stanley McCormick who is heir to the International Harvester Company fortune (his dad designed a new reaper, with all kinds of interchangeable parts that redefined American farming).  Her husband is eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia and she “vows never to have children and develops a staunch belief in the value of contraception.”
  • Meanwhile, Margaret Sanger is at work as a nurse and “dreams about finding a “magic pill” as easy to take as an aspirin that could be used for contraceptive purposes.”
  • In 1917, McCormick and Sanger meet up “and strike up an enduring friendship. Sympathizing with Sanger’s movement, McCormick makes small contributions to the cause and smuggles diaphragms into the United States for Sanger’s clinics.”
  • In 1934, at Harvard, Gregory Pincus “gains fame and notoriety at the age of 31 when he claims to have achieved in-vitro fertilization of rabbits. Pincus is vilified in the national press for tampering with life. Harvard does not grant Pincus tenure.”
  • In 1941, a chemistry professor, Russell Marker, figures out how to make synthetic progesterone from wild yams.
  • 1947–Katharine McCormick’s husband dies, and she inherits all his money.  In 1950, she writes Margaret Sanger and asks what kind of research is being done, and what is the best way to put her fortune to use.
  • 1951 is a big year:

January/February: Margaret Sanger, now 72 years old, makes one last ditch effort to find someone to invent her “magic pill.” At a dinner party in New York City she is introduced to Gregory Pincus and implores him to take up her quest. To her surprise, he tells her that it might be possible with hormones, but that he will need significant funding to proceed.

April 25: Sanger [Margaret! remember that letter!] manages to secure a tiny grant for Gregory Pincus from Planned Parenthood, and Pincus begins initial work on the use of hormones as a contraceptive at The Worcester Foundation. Pincus sets out to prove his hypothesis that injections of the hormone progesterone will inhibit ovulation and thus prevent pregnancy in his lab animals.

October: Pincus goes to the drug company G.D. Searle and requests additional funding from them for the pill project. Searle’s director of research tells Pincus that his previous work for them was “a lamentable failure” and refuses to invest in the project.

October 15: Unbeknownst to Pincus or Sanger, a chemist named Carl Djerassi working out of an obscure lab in Mexico City creates an orally effective form of synthetic progesterone — a progesterone pill. The actual chemistry of the Pill has been invented, but neither Djerassi nor the company he works for, Syntex, has any interest in testing it as a contraceptive.

  • In 1952, Pincus quickly shows that the progesterone works as an anti-ovulant in rabbits (it is also fitting that rabbits are the fertility researcher’s test animal of choice).  Planned Parenthood won’t fund the project, “deciding his work is too risky.”
  • Meanwhile, Dr. John Rock has been studying the rhythm method, advocating for birth control, and risking his teaching career by teaching medical students about diaphragms.  He and Pincus meet at a medical conference where Rock says that he has been testing progesterone as both a contraceptive and as an infertility drug.
  • 1953, Sanger connects McCormick with Pincus (finally–if this was a movie, that letter would be killing me by this point! I would be yelling at my television).  She writes him a check for $40,000 in order for his research to continue, and promises whatever support he needs.
  • In 1954, Rock and Pincus join forces to get FDA approval, and put together the 21 day on, 7 day off setup of the Pill.
  • By 1955, it’s announced they have found a birth control pill. The first product announced is called Enovid (and it’s a liquid!)
  • 1959: “Less than two years after FDA approval of Enovid for therapeutic purposes, an unusually large number of American women mysteriously develop severe menstrual disorders and ask their doctors for the drug. By late 1959, over half a million American women are taking Enovid, presumably for the “off-label” contraceptive purposes.”

Lots more fascinating bits in this story. Lesson here: go to dinners and conferences, read your mail, and don’t forget to ask for money for the projects you care about.




One Response to The Pill and Why You Should Talk to People at Parties

  1. Pingback: Male Contraception: It’s Finally Here. « Millicent and Carla Fran

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