An American Story: The Invention of the Birth Control Pill

Happy 55th birthday to the birth control pill!

On May 9, 1960, the United States Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral contraceptive, Enovid. The four Americans behind this miracle pill were feminist Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), scientist Dr. Gregory Pincus (1903-1967), Roman Catholic obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. John Rock (1890-1984) and heiress Katharine McCormick (1875-1967). This quartet of masterminds came together in the 1950s to create the country’s first oral contraceptive.

 

Sanger was a birth control activist, sex educator and nurse. She was one of 11 children born into a Roman Catholic working-class Irish family. Sanger saw firsthand the effect multiple pregnancies and even miscarriages had on her own mother.

Seeking a better life for herself, Sanger attended Claverack College and Hudson River Institute before studying nursing at White Plains Hospital. In 1902, she married architect William Sanger. The couple would eventually have three children.

In the early 1910s, Sanger began working in New York’s Lower East Side and saw multitudes of women “suffering due to frequent childbirth and self-induced abortions.” In 1912, Sanger began her campaign to educate women about sex and pregnancy when she wrote a newspaper column called “What Every Girl Should Know.”

Sanger coined the term “birth control” and began to distribute contraceptive information and contraceptives, such as douches and suppositories, to women. Her 1914 publication The Woman Rebel promoted a woman’s right to access and use birth control. Sanger was indicted in 1915 for violating the Comstock Act because she had sent her publication through the mail. The law prohibited mailing information about contraceptives as well as actual contraceptives through the mail.

To avoid a possible five-year jail sentence, Sanger fled to England and researched other forms of birth control, such as diaphragms. She and William were separated at the time she lived in England and would eventually divorce. After the charges against her were dropped in October 1915, Sanger returned to the United States. She smuggled diaphragms into the country upon her return.

In October 1916, despite it being illegal to operate such a clinic, Sanger opened the first birth control center in Brooklyn, the first such center in the country. Nine days after opening her clinic, Sanger was arrested for violating a New York state law that prohibited distribution of contraceptives. In January 1917, Sanger was tried, convicted and sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse for her crime. Sanger’s initial appeal was rejected, but, in 1918, the New York Court of Appeals issued a ruling which allowed doctors to prescribe contraceptives.

Since physicians were exempt from the New York law that prohibited distribution of information about contraceptives, provided that the information and the contraceptives were for medical reasons, Sanger established the Clinical Research Bureau (CRB) in 1923. The CRB was the first legal birth control center in the United States and was staffed entirely with female physicians and social workers. Sanger’s clinic received anonymous funding from the Rockefeller family.

In 1946, Sanger helped found the International Committee on Planned Parenthood. In 1952, this organization would evolve into the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which in turn would become our Planned Parenthood of today.

Sanger would live to see the climax of her 50-year career as a birth control advocate. In 1965, the United States Supreme Court legalized birth control in the United States in the landmark case, Griswold v. Connecticut. In this case, the Supreme Court invalidated the Comstock Law.

It is rumored that Sanger found her own sexual freedom after her divorce as she supposedly had affairs with both author H.G. Wells and psychologist Havelock Ellis.

Several women’s health clinics across the United States are named in Sanger’s honor in acknowledgement of her dedication to a woman’s right to use birth control.

 

Dr. Pincus, a first-generation American, was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father and an uncle both worked in agriculture, but Dr. Pincus was more interested in genetics than farming. Dr. Pincus won a scholarship to Cornell University, where he studied biology. Despite being a teaching professor at Harvard, Dr. Pincus was drawn to lab and research work and would later became known for his research and studies of mammalian sexual physiology.

Through his research and lab work, Dr. Pincus examined the connection between stress and hormones, what role the endocrine system plays in mental disorders and whether diabetes was inherited.

Using in-vitro fertilization, Dr. Pincus created a test tube rabbit in 1934. The American public’s imagination ran away with itself, and some people pictured human test tube babies, born to the laboratory and without a family to care for them. Thus, instead of receiving accolades for his achievements in the fertility field, Dr. Pincus was vilified as a “Frankenstein” by the American press for his in-vitro fertilization experiments.

In 1936, Dr. Pincus’ teaching career at Harvard came to an end when the college denied him tenure and then would not renew his teaching contract. An old friend from graduate school, Hudson Hoagland, invited Dr. Pincus to work as a visiting professor of zoology at Clark University. The two men worked together to research connections between stress and hormones for the United States Armed Forces. In 1944, the pair created the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology and began working in the field of applied research, specializing in research involving steroids.

In the early 1950s, Sanger and Dr. Pincus met at a dinner party, and the feminist convinced the scientist to help her create the world’s first birth control pill. It is not clear if Dr. Pincus started to work with progesterone to inhibit ovulation before or after he met Sanger. Dr. Pincus met ground-breaking infertility specialist Dr. Rock. These two men of science would work together to create an oral birth control.

 

Dr. Rock was born into a somewhat affluent, highly religious Roman Catholic family. He had a twin sister, who was his constant companion during childhood. Some scholars have suggested that having such a close relationship to his twin gave Dr. Rock an insight into the medical problems of women that few men of his time possessed.

Taking to his faith with enthusiasm, Dr. Rock became the most devout member of his family. He attended Mass daily, followed the Catholic Church’s doctrine and studied the teachings of Roman Catholic theologians and philosophers.

Originally, Dr. Rock had wanted to be a businessman, but changed his mind after having worked at a Guatemalan banana plantation, where he saw much human suffering and too many children being born to parents who could not afford to care for them.

Dr. Rock began to study medicine and graduated with his medical degree from Harvard in 1918, and went to work in several of Boston’s women’s hospitals before establishing his own practice. During the course of his hospital work in the maternity wards of Boston, Dr. Rock treated some of the city’s poorest women and saw for himself the suffering caused by unwanted pregnancies and too many pregnancies. Dr. Rock began to view birth control as a means to alleviate poverty and to prevent medial problems associated with pregnancy.

In 1931, Dr. Rock, risking excommunication, signed a petition with 15 other prominent Boston physicians in an effort to repeal a Massachusetts state law that prohibited the sale of contraceptives. In 1936, the Catholic Church approved the “rhythm method” of contraceptive. Dr. Rock then opened the first rhythm clinic in Boston in order to teach Catholic women how to use this church-approved method of birth control with the goal of conceiving, not preventing conception.

When Dr. Rock was a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard in the 1940s, he did something unheard of at the time: he taught his students about birth control. Dr. Rock agreed to help Dr. Pincus develop the birth control pill in the 1950s, utilizing Dr. Rock’s infertility research as an undercover method to conduct the first human trials for the birth control pill in Boston. This allowed the pair to work around Massachusetts’ rigid anti-birth control law and to avoid unwanted publicity for taking part in such a controversial medical undertaking.

Dr. Rock, at the age of 70, launched a one-man campaign to convince the Vatican to approve use of the birth control pill as a “more precise way of following the rhythm method.” Rock argued that the pill was a “natural” form of birth control since it contained the same hormones, estrogen and progestin, that exist in every woman’s reproductive system and the pill simply extended the “safe period” a woman has every month. The “safe period” is the time in the menstrual cycle when conception is least likely to occur, usually from ten days before to ten days after the onset of menstruation.

After Pope Paul VI officially banned the use of the birth control pill in his encyclical Humanae viate (Of Human Life), which was published in July 1968, Dr. Rock quit attending daily mass and stopped going to church altogether. When Dr. Rock died in 1984, he was still disappointed with the Catholic Church for prohibiting the use of the birth control pill.

 

McCormick was born a member of a prominent Chicago family, but, unlike many women of her social status, McCormick was encouraged by her father to get an education. She graduated in 1904 with a degree in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). McCormick was the second woman to graduate from MIT. Eventually, she would single-handedly fund the building of the school’s first all-female dormitory. Her contribution allowed more women to study sciences at MIT.

McCormick planned to attend medical school, but she instead married Stanley McCormick, the wealthy heir to the International Harvester Company fortune. Two years into the marriage, Stanley developed schizophrenia and was deemed incompetent by the courts. The courts gave joint control of Stanley’s vast fortune to one of his brothers and to Katharine McCormick. After Stanley’s death in 1947, McCormick was granted full control of her husband’s wealth.

Stanley’s sister, Mary, suffered from schizophrenia as well as other members of their family. Seeing that schizophrenia was inheritable, McCormick vowed to not have children with Stanley in order to avoid cursing their offspring with the disease.

A prominent member of the National Woman Suffrage Association, McCormick met Sanger in 1917 at a lecture in Boston. From that moment onward, the two women stayed in touch. During trips abroad, McCormick smuggled diaphragms into the country for distribution at Sanger’s birth control clinic.

McCormick would not give Sanger any financial assistance due to her personal struggles with Stanley’s family over his fortune. The family was conservative and would have most likely argued that financially supporting a birth control clinic was not the best use of Stanley’s money. This situation would change after McCormick received full control of Stanley’s fortune.

At the age of 75, McCormick turned her full attention to the development of the birth control pill. Nearly every penny that funded the Boston-based research of the birth control pill came from McCormick, who in 1953 wrote a check to Dr. Pincus for $40,000 to fund his and Dr. Rock’s new project. Several sources claim the heiress contributed a total of between one million and two million dollars in support of birth control pill research.

McCormick wanted to see an oral contraceptive in her lifetime; the heiress would live to see her wish fulfilled.

 

The invention of the birth control pill gave women more control over their own bodies, helped reduce unwanted pregnancies and ushered in an American sexual revolution. In several future blogs, Your Sexy Librarian will write about the pharmacologic history of the pill itself, the sexual revolution that began after the masses had access to the first available birth control pill and what forms of birth control are now available in the United States.

Stay tuned!

XOXO,

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