Year of Invention: 1954
What Is It? An oral pill to prevent unwanted pregnancy.
Who Invented It? Gregory Pincus (in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts)
Couples have forever sought safe, reliable contraception. The oral birth control pill was the first such product. This pill is so important, so widely used, it’s simply called “The Pill.”
The birth control pill meant freedom for countless women and has changed our culture by allowing more women to enter the kinds of positions, careers, and roles where their ideas and beliefs can affect the direction and policies of organizations, corporations, and governmental agencies. The pill was also a turning point for science. It represented the first time science was able to demonstrate that it understood a biological process well enough to successfully tinker with it.
Birth control has been an important social issue since the days of the Roman Empire. Dozens of methods have been tried. Some worked reasonably well. Some didn’t. Unplanned and unwanted pregnancies were common. No method was truly reliable.
The invention of the birth control pill is a story of one hormone, four men, and one woman. Research into the hormones that seemed to dominate the process of human pregnancy began in the 1920s. Within a few years, that effort centered on one hormone, progesterone.Pregnant women were found to have much higher levels of that hormone than non-pregnant women.
Researchers soon suspected that progesterone blocked the normal activity of the menstrual cycle. It was as if a high concentration of progesterone announced “we’re pregnant!” to the body and instructed the brain not to request the release of a monthly egg. But natural progesterone was difficult to isolate and frightfully expensive.