- Historic Sites
THE STORY OF THE MEN AND WOMEN WHO IN THE 1950S HELPED CREATE THE SEXUAL LANDSCAPE WE INHABIT TODAY
May/june 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 3
From the start Hoagland had a vision that went far beyond Clark’s tiny three-man biology department. He began to build a research center with talented young scientists who were drawn by his and Pincus’s reputations. Min-Chueh Chang, for example, was delighted to come to Worcester. A young Chinese scientist who had received a Ph.D. from Cambridge in 1941, he had read Pincus’s book “The Eggs of Mammals” in 1936. “A path-finding book, done when he was only thirty-three years old,” Chang said years later. “ Everyone in our field knew about him. You must remember that until then no one knew mammals had eggs.” Soon Clark’s research team numbered fifteen scientists, all of them considered brilliant by their peers and many of them nationally renowned. Their salaries were underwritten by dint of Hoagland’s vigorous fund-raising in the Worcester community. Their lab was a converted barn. Hoagland’s people did not, however, have faculty status and could not eat in the faculty dining room. Wallace Atwood, Clark’s relatively conservative president, hated Hoagland’s end runs, but he could harass him only by denying such small privileges.
Atwood represented the kind of academic bureaucracy that Hoagland and Pincus wanted to leave behind. Since Clark’s only contribution to their work was Hoagland’s rather small salary and a limited amount of space, they became independent of the university in 1944 and founded the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology. As its co-directors they estimated an annual budget of about a hundred thousand dollars and declared its purpose to connect new biology to practical medicine.
The two men complemented each other. Hoagland’s son noted years later that his father never seemed as happy as when he was working directly with Goody Pincus. Hoagland was immensely skillful in tapping into the Worcester establishment for money. He persuaded businessmen to contribute twenty-five thousand dollars for an old mansion that became their headquarters. The staff was young and confident, full of the excitement that comes with having no institutional limits placed on it.
At first their funds were so limited that Pincus cleaned the animal labs, Mrs. Hoagland was the bookkeeper, Hoagland cut the lawn, and Chang was the night watchman. When a local businessman saw Hoagland, stripped to the waist, pushing a lawn mower, he added a grounds keeper’s salary to the budget. In 1950 Chang won an award of one thousand dollars for a paper on fertilization of rabbit eggs from the American Sterility Society; it allowed him to buy his first car. That same year Oscar Hechter, another research associate, won an award from the Endocrinological Society. “We don’t have to worry about money and salaries anymore,” an enthusiastic Pincus told Hoagland. “Our staff members can live on their awards.”
Personal politics didn’t matter to Pincus; only science did.
They were among the early leaders in this country in steroid research. In the late forties Hechter had won the CIBA award for a paper on producing adrenal hormones, but in the race to produce cortisone, the Worcester group was beaten by the scientists at Upjohn—at least partly because Worcester’s major benefactor, the Searle Pharmaceutical Company, was not particularly supportive of their effort. When the next great challenge came, the intensely competitive Pincus swore they would not be beaten again.
Pincus already had a sense that hormones could be used to control reproduction from his work in mammalian reproduction. As a young lab assistant he had been intrigued by what happened when too many rats were placed in the same cage: They attacked one another. His own ideas about the problems of human overcrowding stemmed from those experiments. He asked the people at Searle to finance research in the development of a drug for contraception, but again the answer was not encouraging. In fact, Albert Raymond, Searle’s director of research, came down hard on him: “You haven’t given us a thing to justify the half-million that we have invested in you … yet you have the nerve to ask for more research. You will get more only if a lucky chance gives us something originating from your group which will make us a profit.”
If the attitude at Searle reflected the wariness of a large corporation to be involved in something as sensitive as contraceptive research, then nonetheless the Worcester Foundation was remarkably isolated from the prejudices of the era. Its funding sources were varied, the contributors in the local community generally liberal, and there was no board to answer to. That did not mean that they were not wary. One night in the early fifties a woman knocked on the door of Pincus’s house. She was desperate, almost out of control. She was pregnant, she said, and needed help. Could he help her? Pincus was very gentle with her, his son John noted, but kept his distance. It was, he was sure, a setup; he knew of no other such incidents.