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.



Respect the Cock

Dear CF,

I learned yesterday that in my city one can legally own no more than 12 chickens. This puzzled me. Why 12? At first I thought it might have to do with egg packaging—grocery stores do tend to sell chicken thighs and breasts in packages of six or twelve. Maybe we’ve just internalized the base-12 principle when it comes to birds.

Wrong. Today I discovered why. It has to do with chicken family values, which consist—according to William Harvey, my scientist du jour—of exactly one rooster and, ideally, ten hens. (I know that’s only 11. I imagine city planning officials saw fit to permit a spare.)

William Harvey is justly famous for accurately describing the double circulation of the blood in his “Anatomical Disquisition on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals.” It’s a rousing story of perseverance and smarts overcoming ignorance and odds. We can rejoice that after a lifetime of bitter struggle (and friendship with Hobbes, which amount to the same thing), he watched his discovery gain public acceptance.

He’s less known for his treatise on animal reproduction, a tome called “On Generation” that offers a detailed and sometimes lyrical examination of the sex lives of (mainly) chickens.

Why chickens? you ask. Harvey thought you might:

Among male animals there is none that is more active or more haughty and erect, or that has stronger powers of digestion than the cock, which turns the larger portion of his food into semen; hence it is that he requires many wives—ten or even a dozen [you see? The city officials compromised.] … Now those males that are so vigorously constituted as to serve several females are larger and handsomer, and in the matter of spirit and arms excel their females in a far greater degree than the males of those that live attached to a single female.

In case you aren’t convinced (warning, graphic imagery ahead):

The cock, therefore, as he is gayer in his plumage, better armed, more courageous and pugnacious, so is he replete with semen, and so apt for repeated intercourse, that unless he have a number of wives he distresses them by his frequent assaults; he not only invites but compels them to his pleasure, and leaping upon them at inconvenient and improper seasons, (even when they are engaged in the business of incubation) and wearing off the feathers from their backs, he truly does them an injury.

If you can get past the ick of that bit, I ask you to imagine the methodology involved in investigating the following in his capacity as natural philosopher-cum-poultry pornographer:

It is certain that the cock in coition emits his “geniture,” commonly called semen, from his sexual parts, although he has no penis, as I maintain; because his testes and long and ample vas deferentia are full of this fluid. But whether it issues in jets, with a kind of spiritous briskness and repeatedly as in the hotter viviparous animals, or not, I have not been able to ascertain.

Not having perfected the art of chicken-pleasing, Harvey nonetheless movingly describes the hen’s sexual experience: Read more of this post

A Very Great Company of Radiating Pencils

Dear CF,

It has always been a great fantasy of mine to draw well.  It has also been a great fantasy of mine to work in a messy and unhygienic laboratory where Kimwipes and agar have not yet been invented, where there aren’t Biohazard containers or sharps disposal boxes, and where one could (not that one would) potentially conduct evilish experiments . In my youth I occasionally turned my bathroom into this kind of lab. The inspiration was George’s Marvelous Medicine. The occasion was a skin allergy I developed to my favorite hangout tree. (A fig, in case you were wondering.) After spying on the neighbors next door from the tree for a few hours I’d come back and try different mixtures on the rash.

In that spirit, I give you one of my favorite quiet mad scientists, Robert Hooke, whose Micrographia was published in 1665, when he was 30 years old. He experimented with optics, wrestled with various kinds of microscopy, which was in its infancy, and peppered the book with amazing illustrations, including the famous portrait of the flea.

I love him, though, for the insanity of his process, a sample of which I give you here:

The Microscope, which for the most part I made use of … was contriv’d with three Glasses; a small Object Glass at A, a thinner Eye Glass about B, and a very deep one about C: this I made use of only when I had occasion to see much of an Object at once; the middle Glass conveying a very great company of radiating Pencils, which would go another way, and throwing them upon the deep Eye Glass.

But when ever I had occasion to examine the small parts of a Body more accurately, I took out the middle Glass, and only made use of one Eye Glass with the Object Glass, for always the fewer the Refractions are, the more bright and clear the Object appears. And therefore ’tis not to be doubted, but could we make a Microscope to have one only refraction, it would, cæteris paribus, far excel any other that had a greater number.

Okay, so this might not strike you as all that wild and crazy. Pedantic, even pedestrian. But then we get this:

And hence it is, that if you take a very clear piece of a broken Venice Glass, and in a Lamp draw it out into very small hairs or threads, then holding the ends of these threads in the flame, till they melt and run into a small round Globul, or drop, which will hang at the end of the thread; and if further you stick several of these upon the end of a stick with a little sealing Wax, so as that the threads stand upwards, and then on a Whetstone first grind off a good part of them, and afterward on a smooth Metal plate, with a little Tripoly, rub them till they come to be very smooth; if one of these be fixt with a little soft Wax against a small needle hole, prick’d through a thin Plate of Brass, Lead, Pewter, or any other Metal, and an Object, plac’d very near, be look’d at through it, it will both magnifie and make some Objects more distinct then any of the great Microscopes.

WHO DOES THIS? How on earth did he generate that particular series of “ifs”? In what universe do you decide that the way to better magnify an object is to make a Venetian-glass-and-wax equivalent of a Sonicare toothbrush head, suitably polished?

In Robert Hooke’s awesome universe, that’s where.

Here is his drawing of a fly’s compound eye:


Here is his drawing of a nettle:


And here is his account of how he poked himself repeatedly with the nettle to figure out how it worked:

This I found by this experiment, I had a very convenient microscope with a single Glass which drew about half an Inch, this I had fastned into a little frame, almost like a pair of Spectacles, which I placed before mine eyes, and so holding the leaf of a Nettle at a convenient distance from my eye, I did first, with the thrusting of several of these bristles into my skin, perceive that presently after I had thrust them in I felt the burning pain begin; next I observ’d in divers of them, that upon thrusting my finger against their tops, the Bodkin (if I may so call it) did not in the least bend, but I could perceive moving up and down within it a certain liquor, which upon thrusting the Bodkin against its bafis, or bagg B, I could perceive to rise towards the top, and upon taking away my hand, I could see it again subside, and shrink into the bagg; this I did very often, and saw this Phaenomenon as plain as I could ever see a parcel of water ascend and descend in a pipe of Glass. But the basis underneath these Bodkins on which they were fast, were made of a more pliable substance, and looked almost like a little bagg of green Leather, or rather resembled the shape and surface of a wilde Cucumber, or cucumeris asinini, and I could plainly perceive them to be certain little baggs, bladders, or receptacles full of water, or as I ghess, the liquor of the Plant, which was poisonous, and those small Bodkins were but the Syringe-pipes, or Glyster-pipes, which first made way into the skin, and then served to convey that poisonous juice, upon the pressing of those little baggs, into the interior and sensible parts of the skin, which being so discharg’d, does corrode, or, as it were, burn that part of the skin it touches; and this pain will sometimes last very long, according as the impression is made deeper or stronger.

I want that little pair of Spectacles.