“The Pill” Pushers

This week (May 9) in 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved Enovid-10, the world’s first commercially produced birth control pill.  This is the very short story of the four very different people who made it happen.

Margaret Sanger was one of 11 children. Her father was a radical Irishman whose sexual appetite Margaret blamed for the early death of her mother.  Thus did the idea of giving women more reproductive freedom come to Sanger early, and it was certainly reinforced when she moved to New York City and saw so many poor women, saddled with children they could not support, living hopeless, squalid lives.  Sanger became the driving force behind creating a convenient, readily available contraceptive for women.

Katherine McCormick became the financier. A wealthy blue-blood who had married Stanley McCormick — his father founded International Harvester — she became involved with Planned Parenthood, where she met and befriended Margaret Sanger. She promised to financially support any research designed to develop an oral contraceptive.

That research was conducted by Gregory “Goody” Pincus, the son of Russian Jews who immigrated to America.   A child genius, he majored in biology at Cornell University before teaching at Harvard, where his research won Harvard worldwide acclaim.  Denied tenure because he was a maverick, but also because he was a Jew, Pincus went to Clark University in Massachusetts, where he became the leader of a group of independent biochemists doing experimental work in animal reproduction.  Learning of his work, Sanger challenged him to develop an oral contraceptive and McCormick promised him funding.

Pincus believed that he could prevent conception by chemically imitating the hormonal condition that occurs during pregnancy when the body naturally blocks ovulation, and in lab experiments the work went surprisingly well—so well that Pincus realized he needed to recruit a medical doctor to join the team. Laboratory research was one thing. Applying it to real people was another.

Dr. John Rock of Harvard Medical School was to Goody Pincus as night was to day. Tall, charming, handsome, and devoutly Catholic, Rock’s original reproductive goals were the exact opposite of Pincus’.  A gynecologist, he hoped to cure infertility in women.

But Rock became increasingly flexible on birth control and his real-world applications of Pincus’ laboratory achievements were the final piece of the puzzle.  In tests on poor women in Puerto Rico and Haiti, “the pill,” as it was called, was a total success.

And so, one of the most life-altering phenomenon of the 20th century was started by two women — one a radical Irish atheist, the other a wealthy Protestant socialite — and two men — one a short, homely, Jewish lab rat, the other a tall, handsome Catholic physician.

Only in America.