- Historic Sites
The Story Of The Pill
How a Crash Program Developed an Efficient Oral Contraceptive in Less Than a Decade
August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
Powerful religious opposition yet remained, however, from the Roman Catholic hierarchy and also from numerous Protestant fundamentalist sects. It was sufficient to deny government funding to any research directly aimed at the control of human fertility. And this was increasingly tantalizing and frustrating to Margaret Sanger as the terrifying statistics of “population explosion” added a new argument to her battery. She had no scientific expertise, but by 1950 she knew that biological scientists were opening up new and promising approaches to physiological contraception. She was persuaded that adequately funded research along the indicated lines just might provide a safe, unprecedentedly effective means of birth control within a few years. And she deplored with some bitterness the priorities which assigned millions of tax dollars annually to the improvement of livestock breeds, while denying any money at all to research whose success might immensely reduce human misery in the process of increasing, perhaps as greatly, the survival chances of civilization.
It was thus with intense interest that Margaret Sanger received in late 1950 a letter from a wealthy, long-time friend asking her pointedly “what the present prospects are for further “ contraceptive research.” Her friend was Mrs. Stanley (Katharine Dexter) McCormick—a woman of formidable appearance, tall, stately, and so rich she could not even “spend the interest on her interest ,” as her lawyer once said. Her father, a prominent and prosperous Chicago lawyer, had early recognized her rare intelligence and encouraged her enrollment in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where, in 1904, she took a B.S. in biology—the second woman ever to graduate from that institution. Shortly thereafter she married the youngest son of Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the mechanical reaper and founder of International Harvester. Then came tragedy: her young husband became a hopeless schizophrenic. Mrs. McCormick totally withdrew from the brilliant society in which she had formerly moved, lived ever after as a semirecluse, and continued to dress pretty much as she had in her bridal year, as if her wearing of the long skirts and fussy hats of the Teddy Roosevelt era would retain for her vestiges of the happiness she had then known. Her other major response to tragedy was quietly to endow a number of projects that were highly worthy by her criteria but highly unpopular, and so unlikely to gain financial support elsewhere. One of these was birth control. To its importance she was “awakened,” as she said, by Margaret Sanger’s trial and imprisonment in 1917. To it she made substantial financial contributions after she and Sanger became personal friends in the late 1920’s.
It is probable that, when Mrs. McCormick wrote Sanger in 1950, she, already had in mind a man to whom she might make her research grant. One object of her earlier largess, natural in her circumstances, was research into the biochemistry of schizophrenia—this after intensive psychiatric treatment had failed to better her husband’s condition. In 1927 she had established an organization called the Neuroendocrine Research Foundation whose clinical work with schizophrenics was concentrated in the Worcester State Hospital (Worcester, Massachusetts). Involved in it during the late thirties and early forties were two biological scientists of Worcester’s Clark University. One was Dr. Hudson Hoagland, chairman of Clark’s biology department, whose field was neurophysiology; the other was Dr. Gregory Goodwin (“Goody”) Pincus, an expert in endocrinology and mammalian reproduction. In 1944, Hoagland, and Pincus, having rebelled against the administration of a notably authoritarian and reactionary Clark president, broke away from the university to establish the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, endowed (due mostly to Hoagland’s remarkable fund-raising talents) by several of Worcester’s wealthiest families. There, as the 1940’s ended, Pincus and the group of young scientists who had gathered around him were hard at work on basic researches into the biochemistry of mammalian reproduction. Probably Hoagland told his friend Mrs. McCormick about these researches one day in the autumn of 1950, after she had expressed her desire to encourage experiments specifically designed to develop new and better means of birth control.
At any rate, it was with Dr. Pincus that she and Margaret Sanger conferred at that crucial meeting in 1951. The two women were certain by then that no man was better equipped to answer the key question: could a physiological contraceptive be developed for safe mass use within the next few years if all relevant information and skill were applied to that end? Pincus’ answer was a carefully hedged yes (no one could know for certain ). Well, then, would he himself, adequately funded, be willing to undertake such research at the foundation? Again Pincus’ answer was essentially yes: the proposed project seemed a natural outgrowth of his past work. How much money would he need to get started? According to Pincus’ widow, this question was asked several times by Mrs. McCormick, Pincus dodging it until finally, forced by her insistence, he snatched “off the top of my head” (so he told his wife) a figure—$125,000. Whereupon Mrs. McCormick made out a check for $40,000, promising the remaining $85,000 as soon as she could make arrangements with her “financial man.” Ultimately she would give nearly $2,000,000 to the Worcester Foundation in support of Pincus’ enterprise.