Revisiting the History of Oral Contraceptives
Women’s health is a crucial part of women’s history, and the birth control pill represents a technology that has changed the lives of women internationally since its creation. After initially coming on the market in the 1960s, oral contraceptives quickly became a bestseller throughout the United States. In America, the number of women taking the pill increased nearly six times from the years 1962 to 1964, from just over one million to well over six million. This is dramatic not only because of the huge increase in the number of women taking the drug, but because of the large number of healthy individuals consuming pills that did not fix a health issue. For the first time on a large scale, women were consuming drugs to exert control over their bodies.
It is mainly two women who brought the idea of the pill to life: Margaret Sanger, an outspoken advocate of birth control throughout the early 20th century, and Katharine McCormick, the main financier of pill research. These women worked with Gregory Pincus, a reproduction scientist; Carl Djerassi, who synthesized progesterone, a necessary hormone for the pill; and John Rock to develop an oral contraceptive for women. First sold in 1957 as a menstrual disorder aid, it was approved and sold as a contraceptive named Enovid in 1960.
While the creation of the pill was lauded as a success for science and for women, traditional histories of the pill often do not mention the complications surrounding its creation or the controversy surrounding its side effects. One example is the part played by Russell Marker, an American scientist who is partially responsible for synthesizing progesterone. Marker traveled to Mexico to investigate barbasco, a diosgenin-rich yam that was chemically converted to progesterone once Marker had proved its usefulness. Through his efforts, Mexican barbasco became a plentiful beginning source for the sudden demand for progesterone to produce oral contraceptives. However, it is often only Carl Djerassi who receives credit for this discovery. Gabriela Soto Laveaga attempts to address this noticeable absence in history in her book Jungle Laboratories, also attempting to tell the stories of the many Mexican men, women, and children who devoted themselves to picking barbasco to sell and make money to survive.
Forgotten individuals contributing to creation of the modern birth control pill continued after the pill’s initial success of the 1960s. Activists of the American women’s health movement, embracing the ideals of second wave feminism and most prominent during the 1970s, called for investigations and reform concerning the side effects of the pill. Compared to birth control pills today, the initial oral contraceptives were ten times more potent, and would often cause side effects like hair loss, skin irritations, personality swings, and sometimes blood clots leading to death.
One of the most active members who called for investigations into the pill’s side effects was Barbara Seaman, an American journalist best known today for her 1969 book, The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill. Seaman initially became interested in the pill after hearing from readers of her advice column, to which more and more women began to write in wondering about the pill’s side effects. Seaman compiled research and testimonies from doctors and women who had taken the pill, and her book became the inspiration for the 1970 Nelson Pill Hearings, resulting in the first patient package insert on any drug in America. Due to Seaman’s work and the efforts of other women’s health activists, researchers continued to investigate how to improve the pill’s safety. Further, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, responsible for drug regulations recognized the importance of informed consent, requiring additional labeling on all American pharmaceuticals in the decades to come.
The prolific birth control pill was the product of well-known individuals like Margaret Sanger, but also the less well-known scientist Russell Marker, and the unrecognized Mexican farmers who picked countless tons of barbasco to produce the chemical component necessary for the pill. Further, oral contraceptives did not launch into the market as an unrestrained success, but have undergone numerous investigations and safety trials in an attempt to limit the negative side effects experienced by the first women taking the drug, because of the efforts of under-recognized individuals like Barbara Seaman.
At the end of women’s history month, it is worth remembering that classic “success” stories like the birth control pill are often more complicated than told in traditional narratives. The pill’s creation and dissemination was a scientific and social process, the result of numerous individuals who often receive little credit for their efforts to improve women’s health.