- 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
In 1953 Pincus suggested to Planned Parenthood that they get Rock to do a study on the use of progesterone as a contraceptive device. Rock, whose attitudes toward contraception had been slowly changing, was finally ready to participate. In 1954 he tried the new synthetic hormone from Searle on three women. Rock was in many ways a very conservative man. He had argued against the admission of women to Harvard Medical School and often told his own daughters that he did not think women were capable of being doctors. But his views on birth control evolved steadily. In 1943, when he was fifty-three years old, he had come out for the repeal of legal restrictions on physicians to give advice on medical birth control. In the mid-forties, although scrupulous about not offering contraceptives to his own patients, he began to teach his young students at Harvard Medical School how to prescribe them. Years later he would pinpoint the late forties as the time when he became aware of what he called “the alarming danger of the population explosion.” He began to fit some of his patients with diaphragms, which so enraged some of his Catholic colleagues that they tried to have him excommunicated from his church. In 1949 he wrote a book with David Loth called Voluntary Parenthood , which was a comprehensive survey of birth-control methods available for the general public. Still, Rock’s primary motivation in joining with Pincus was to benefit couples who, despite all physiological evidence to the contrary, were unable to have children. In the past he had had some success injecting the women with natural progesterone.
He gave the progestin steroids to a group of fifty childless women at his clinic, starting in December 1954. The dosage was ten to forty milligrams for twenty successive days for each menstrual cycle. When the women came off the progestin, seven of the fifty, or 14 percent, were able to get pregnant. That was wonderful news for Rock. In addition, there was among the fifty a virtual 100 percent postponement of ovulation. That was wonderful news for Pincus and Chang. Pincus became so confident that he had begun to refer to “the Pill.”
The FDA approved the Pill in 1960: by 1963 over two million women were on it.
By the fall of 1955, when the International Planned Parenthood meeting took place in Tokyo, Pincus had decided to go public with his research. He asked Rock to join him, but Rock was uneasy; the research, while positive, was not yet conclusive, and he was also sensitive about making the announcement at a meeting of birth-control advocates. It was the closest the two men came to a break.
In Tokyo Pincus gave the most optimistic report yet on the coming of an inexpensive oral contraceptive agent. What he needed now were more patients and a broader selection of them; it was one thing to succeed with middle-class, college-educated women, but what about poor and illiterate women? Puerto Rico and Haiti were chosen as locales for mass testing. These were the perfect places for their needs—poor and overcrowded. Public officials there were more than ready for a serious study of birth control. In April 1956 the tests began on 100 women in a poor suburb of San Juan. It had been exceptionally easy to get volunteers; the problem was keeping other women out. The pill used was Enovid, made by Searle, whose officials were still nervous about being associated with Pincus in the program and whose top public relations people warned that this activity might destroy the company’s good name. The early returns from Puerto Rico were very good: In the first eight months 221 patients took the Pill, without a single pregnancy. There were some side effects, primarily nausea, but Pincus was able to reduce them by adding an antiacid.
Pincus’s daughter, Laura, took some time off from her studies at Radcliffe to help with the tests in Puerto Rico. Upon her return to Boston she was sent to brief McCormick, who lived in a grand mansion in Back Bay, a forbidding house that seemed to have neither lights nor life to it. Laura Pincus was, in her own words, rather naive about sex, and she got a little flustered talking to this old woman about the experiments. But Kate McCormick did not become unsettled; she talked openly and frankly. The sex drive was so strong, she kept insisting, that it was critical that it be separated from reproductive functions. Then there was a brief discussion of the pleasures of sex followed by a casual remark to the effect that sex between women might be more meaningful. This was spoken dispassionately, not suggestively. Nonetheless, young Ms. Pincus was stunned. Here she was in this nineteenth-century setting hearing words that seemed to come from the twenty-first century. Then, knowing that her visitor had to take the subway back to college, McCormick summoned her butler, who brought her a silver tray with coins. She reached down and picked out two dimes and handed them to her visitor. Later, after she had left, Laura Pincus looked down at the coins and noticed they had been minted in 1929.
The test in Puerto Rico proved to be an extraordinary triumph for Pincus. He began to travel around the world, talking with great enthusiasm of the coming breakthrough in contraception. He would tell his audiences “how a few precious facts obscurely come to in the laboratory may resonate into the lives of men everywhere, bring order to disorder, hope to the hopeless, life to the dying. That this is the magic and mystery of our time is sometimes grasped and often missed, but to expound it is inevitable.”