The Story Of The Pill


To appreciate Pincus’ role requires some knowledge of the special branch of science in which he worked. It was in the mid-1890’s that a Viennese gynecologist, Emu Knauer, demonstrated experimentally that a substance or substances secreted by the ovary controlled the development of female sexual characteristics. In 1897 it was suggested (by J. Beard) that one such secretion might come from a theretofore wholly mysterious body known as the corpus luteum (“yellow body”), which begins to grow in the ovarian envelope in which the human egg is formed immediately after the egg has been discharged from it to travel down the Fallopian tube, which leads from ovary to uterus. The egg is either fertilized or not in the upper part of the Fallopian, depending upon whether or not a vigorous spermatozoan is encountered there. If the egg is not fertilized, the corpus luteum soon disintegrates. If the egg is fertilized, the corpus luteum persists through the pregnancy period, growing very large before it begins to atrophy as pregnancy nears its end. Such order of events indicated that one function of the substance secreted by the corpus luteum might be to facilitate implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterus. Another function, it seemed, might be to inhibit further ovulation during pregnancy.

When these investigations were made, the biological substances involved had not yet been given a generic name. They were given one, however, very shortly thereafter. They were classed with other secretions from ductless (endocrine) glands, such as the thyroid and the pituitary—secretions whose function is that of chemical messenger carrying a specific command through the bloodstream to a specific target organ—and the generic name given all these (by a classicist friend of pioneer endocrinologist Ernest Starling) was “hormone,” from the Greek word meaning “to excite” or “arouse to activity.”

This was in 1905. In that year, Gregory Pincus was two years old.

He was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who in the nineteenth century became members of a farm colony near Woodbine, New Jersey, where he was born in 1903. He grew up in a farming community, and one of his uncles was dean of agriculture at Rutgers, so it was natural for him to enroll in agriculture at Cornell, majoring initially in pomology, with apple growing as his vocational aim. This specialty soon proved too narrowly confining, however. He became interested in plant genetics, then animal genetics, and when he entered Harvard’s graduate school, after taking his B.S. at Cornell, his doctoral field was mammalian genetics. It was at Harvard that he met and became friends with Hudson Hoagland, who, after taking an A.B. at Columbia and an M.S. in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was working toward a Ph.D. in experimental psychology. Both received their doctorates in 1927, and both received National Research Council Fellowships for postdoctoral work. Pincus used his for a year and a half of work at Cambridge University, in England, where he first became interested in reproductive physiology, followed by a half year of work in genetics at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. He returned to Harvard as an instructor in general physiology in the fall of 1930. Two years later he was given a threeyear appointment as assistant professor.

By that time, very considerable progress had been made in sex hormone research. While Pincus was studying practical agricultural subjects as a Cornell freshman, an Austrian physiologist, Ludwig Haberlandt, was summarizing the results of experiments he had made with the sex glands of animals. Haberlandt had transplanted the ovaries of pregnant guinea pigs, and of pregnant rabbits, into nonpregnant guinea pigs and rabbits, and had found that the latter became temporarily sterile. This led him to suggest, in 1921, that extracts from the ovaries of pregnant animals might inhibit ovulation in human females—might be used, in other words, as a contraceptive far more effective than any previously used. Meanwhile, biochemists struggled to isolate and chemically identify the female sex hormones. In 1928 two scientists of the University of Rochester (George W. Corner and Willard M. Allen) identified the hormone produced by the corpus luteum . The hormone was named for its principal function: progesterone, a combination of the Latin pro (“in favor of”) with the Latin gestare (“to bear”), although its concomitant function of preventing ovulation during pregnancy had not been forgotten. In the following year a scientist at Washington University in St. Louis (Edward Doisy) established experimentally that sexual desire and readiness in female rats is induced by a hormone produced in the rat ovary. This hormone, essential to the sexual organization of all mammalian females, was called estrogen, a combination of the Greek oistros (”frenzy,” or “mad desire”) with gennein (“to beget”).