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The rollicking birth of the birth control pill [Commentary]

Author Jonathan Eig recalls hearing a rabbi say in a sermon that The Pill was the most important invention of the 20th century and scoffing at that declaration. He could think of half a dozen inventions more important.

And besides, who invented it? If The Pill was so important, why wasn't there an Alexander Graham Bell or a Henry Ford story to go with it?

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Mr. Eig has now written that story. A rollicking, super-secret race against time, the Catholic Church and the federal government run by a disenfranchised scientist, a Catholic gynecologist women instinctively trusted, a woman who championed the pleasure of sex for women and her immensely wealthy friend.

It is titled, of course, "The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution."

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The four crusaders

Harvard had fired biologist Gregory Goodwin Pincus because he had the gall to brag to the press that he was experimenting with in-vitro fertilization. Instead of publishing his research in scientific journals, he was predicting that men might someday be unnecessary. This came on the heels of Aldous Huxley's book "Brave New World," and more than just the deans at Harvard were nervous, Mr. Eig told Terry Gross on her program, "Fresh Air."

Pincus was working out of a garage, using donations from neighbors when Margaret Sanger found him.

Sanger had been outspoken about a woman's right to enjoy sex without the fear of pregnancy, but she had also seen her mother die young as the result of bearing too many children. She worked in the slums of New York and saw what happened to women and families with so many children and no idea at all how to stop them from coming.

Katharine McCormick, wealthy in her own right, graduated in 1904 with a degree in biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and intended to go to medical school. But instead she married Stanley Robert McCormick, heir to the International Harvester fortune.

When her husband died in 1947, she turned to her friend Margaret Sanger from the Suffragette Movement and asked, what was the most important thing she could do with the wealth she had inherited from her mother and husband?

A pill to control a woman's fertility was her answer. And Katharine McCormick starting writing checks.

The two women turned to Pincus, who had the hormonal research in his back pocket. But they would need to test the drugs on women, and for that they turned to Dr. John Rock, a Harvard-trained gynecologist who ran a unique practice. In one office, he helped women who were struggling with infertility by jump-starting their reproductive system with progesterone and estrogen, a combination that would eventually become the recipe for The Pill. Down the hall, he helped women understand their fertility cycle so they could stop getting pregnant — the rhythm method.

More important, Rock was Catholic and willing to stand up to the church.

The revolution

Rock encouraged his patients to try this new pill, and they trusted him. These were the days before consent forms and full disclosure.

But Pincus knew they were in a race against time. Word of this magical new pill was ,leaking and women were clamoring for it. But he feared that the Catholic Church and the federal government, which still banned birth control, as did 30 states, would rise up to stop him as soon as they became aware of this work.

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So he rode the wave of public demand and pushed The Pill through the Food and Drug Administration as a remedy for "menstrual disorders." It had been tested on only a couple of dozen women for about six months, and it was the first drug to be taken by healthy people every day — and that alone would have made it a tough sell. But it won approval in June of 1957.

Now a woman could tell her doctor that she wanted to remedy her irregular cycle or her painful periods, and he could prescribe a daily dose of a pill that came with this warning: "This pill will likely prevent pregnancy."

The author said in the Terry Gross interview that one of his favorite scenes in the book is of Katharine McCormick, who had worked with Margaret Sanger smuggling diaphragms, going into a drugstore in her 80s with a prescription from her doctor for birth control pills just because she could.

That is the Henry Ford story of The Pill.

Susan Reimer's columns appear on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

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