Magazine article Newsweek

The Pill That Transformed America

Magazine article Newsweek

The Pill That Transformed America

Article excerpt

FROM THE DAY SHE opened her first clinic in 1916, Margaret Sanger longed for a simple, reliable, nonintrusive birth-control technique: a pill. Traditional "barrier" methods failed too often. They were overmatched by human error, mechanical failure and the ever-present factor of lust. Finally, in 1951 Sanger found a wealthy kindred spirit to fund her dream. She teamed up with Katharine McCormick, an MIT graduate whose father-in-law, Cyrus McCormick, had invented the mechanical reaper. Together they set out to help people prevent reaping what they were about to sow.

First, they needed a biologist. They found him in Gregory Pincus, head of the Worcester (Mass.) Foundation for Experimental Biology. Pincus was renowned for his breakthrough work fertilizing rabbit eggs in a test tube-and he was a man who reveled in meeting a challenge.

McCormick gave Pincus a $40,000 check. (She would be the pill's chief benefactor, contributing almost $2 million to the research.) Two strokes of good fortune followed quickly. First, chemists working separately in Mexico City and Chicago produced the pill's key ingredient, an oral form of progesterone. Back in 1928 the hormone, whose name comes from the Latin pro (in favor of) gestare (to bear), had been identified as central to sustaining pregnancy, and researchers thought it could be a critical ingredient in contraception.

Scientists injected the hormone into rabbits tricked into thinking they were pregnant, the animals stopped ovulating. …

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