Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Rocky Road to the Birth of the Pill

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

The Rocky Road to the Birth of the Pill

Article excerpt


THE BIRTH OF THE PILL: HOW FOUR PIONEERS REINVENTED SEX AND LAUNCHED A REVOLUTION by Jonathan Eig (Macmillan, PS16.99) UNTIL four intrepid and slightly nutty individuals in the early Fifties went out on a limb to develop a simple, fail-safe oral contraceptive, for most women sex meant motherhood, exhaustion and permanent second-class status. Having babies was what women were for, and those who didn't want to reproduce could be "considered as deviants", according to one medical journal. Even providing information about contraception broke obscenity laws at the time, and preventive advice was scarce and bizarre. One woman was told to sleep on the roof.

The person who precipitated seismic change in this culture was Margaret Sanger, a campaigner since 1913 for birth control and owner of a company selling diaphragms and condoms. She was no scientist but had a personal conviction that something much better, even "magical", could be done with chemicals to arrest women's fertility and sought out a maverick ex-Harvard biologist called Gregory Pincus to help her.

Pincus had attracted suspicion -- and the predictable "Frankenstein" comparisons -- by his early interest in a form of in vitro fertilisation, and was convinced that by dosing women with progesterone he could stop them ovulating. He had no institutional backing, which made the whole project rather shoestring, but also meant he could experiment freely. Soon a small group of "guerilla scientists" had joined him in the converted garage in Massachusetts where he conducted his work.

The other main players in Jonathan Eig's pacy, chatty history of "one of the most daring and controversial pharmaceutical products" ever conceived, were John Rock, a respected Catholic physician who helped give ethical clout to the project, and a wealthy philanthropist called Katharine McCormick who kept the lab in funds.

Early results with rats and rabbits were encouraging but the leap to testing on humans of course posed difficulties. …

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