The Birth of the Pill by Jonathan Eig

Like so many others, birth control is a part of my daily ritual. And, like many young adults, female rights are a constant conversation stored in my vernacular. But as any true debater knows, knowledge is the true power. Plus, to say I am a nerd is a light way of putting it. So I was immediately drawn to this book about two summers ago. Although it took some time to truly get through the story, it is incredible. Remarkable people, the most human depiction of characters in a memoir or biography I have read in quite some time. 

Before I get too in-depth with this review or lost in the people of this tale, let’s start with some facts that I could spend hours thinking about. 

For instance, one of the driving reasons, at least for the media and investors, to look into birth control was as a method of directly influencing the population growth. Especially in places like Japan where the population had already surpassed their environmental limits by the 1940s. However, once birth control was actually approved and marketed by the FDA for the purpose of birth control, Japan had actually refused to legalize it. Although the movement and people behind the movement had great popularity there, politicians believed that by legalizing and selling brith control would be a gateway to a promiscuous society. So, it wasn’t until 1997, after they had legalized the sale of Viagra, did they then reconsider the need for some sort of birth control.

Let’s see then, birth control was created to control the growing population in Japan, but wasn’t allowed to be soled for almost forty years until they started selling the substance that could allow them to bread like rabbits…I have been alive longer than birth control has been sold in Japan! That’s kinda scary. 

After you mull on that for a bit, let’s talk about some truly incredible history. 

Margaret Sanger:


Born September 14th, 1879 to Michael Hennessey and Anne Purcell Higgins. Margaret was the sixth of eleven children and witnessed her mother through numerous unsuccessful pregnancies along with many complications that followed as a result. Which, can be assumed, influenced Margaret’s own thoughts on the birth control matter. Supported by her older siblings and father, Margaret was able to enroll at the White Plains Hospital as a nurse practitioner in 1900. Two years later, she married William Sanger and left the hospital.

In 1911, Margaret and William had two children and ashes for their house. So they returned to the city and made a life in the village. Well, more to say, Margaret made a life in the village. She began joining and working with women’s groups while William railed against such behavior. For two years, Margaret wrote a series of column for New York Call entitled “What Every Mother Should Know” and “What Every Girl Should Know.” Sanger’s socialist and medical work led her to meet numerous of women that consistently became pregnant and frequently attempted various forms of self-mutilation to end the pregnancies or prevent ever becoming pregnant. From all of this, Margaret began to understand that women’s liberation is directly linked to their control of their reproductive systems. How could a woman be free to choose if mother nature and the penis-driven society caged her?

In 1914, Sanger produced a monthly newsletter that promoted contraception called The Women Rebel. Through this, Sanger attempted to start one of the sexual revolution’s conversations, adding contraception and a woman’s right to candor medical information about her sexuality to the topics at hand, viewing the first step in what would become her life’s ambition as an exercise of free speech. However, this exercise proved illegal to the federal Comstock laws which stated that Margaret Sanger had violated the obscenity laws of the postal service. 

Sanger would spend the next two years traveling to learn anti other methods of contraception, but also in exile from the authorities. In October of 1916, Sanger opened her first family planning clinic in Brooklyn. Nine days later, she was arrested. She quickly posted bail and returned to the open clinic. They were arrested again for distribution of contraceptives and public nuisance. Sanger went to trial in 1917 and promised a lenient sentence if she promised to no longer break the law, which Sanger responded with, “she could not as the law exists today.”

Sanger went on to create what is now known as the Planned Parenthood Federation, nationally and internationally. However, the politics of the federation began to irritate her as the names began changing, their role became less and less revolutionary, and their leaders seemed to think Sanger was just a crazy old lady. So, a little passed her prime, Sanger once again began to form her own path on social issues. Sanger sought out the aid of leaders such as Gregory Pincus, John Rock (although never liked or trusted), and Katharine McCormick. 

From these four individuals bled the ties of family and friends that spilled birth control into what we know of it today. It took 10 years for these people to create and sell this option, an option, is what we all want to make clear. No one is forcing anyone to take this pill, if you do not want to, you do not have to. But for those who do, it is there option because this option exists. Girls are no longer waddling to clean dishes to get by before they even hit their second decade. Mothers no longer need to age by experience and not time, they no longer feel comfort in their hot mug of Epsom salts. Thanks to these four women. 

Margaret was the equivalent of the face and the Marketer. Her face was synonymous with the cause, she was able to back support from various organizations, occasionally receiving funds from her own Planned Parenthood as well. Considering that their project and research began in the 1950s, when more conservative home values had resurfaced with a vengeance, going under the euphemism of population growth became a necessity. It also shaped the national and global conversation, committees and teams, along with politicians and unions were discussing the threat that the human population had become. What would happen when we surpass the limit? How will we survive?

For 10 years, Margaret traveled back and forth from Boston to New York, occasionally to Puerto Rico, and numerous times to Japan to make headlines, secure funds, and attempt to shape the political movement in recognition of the pill. Once the pill was created, it was only sold for severe menstrual duress and required a prescription. For a little over a year, women learned what to say and which doctors would prescribe it until the pill became sanctioned by the FDA. But women could not take it for more than a year without being checked and were not allowed to stay on the prescription for five years. Out of risk of the unknown, long term symptoms and effects were not well studied in the 10 year project.

Margaret, although very sick from the sixties, due to heart attacks and various medical and alcohol dependencies, did not pass until Griswold v Connecticut. Exactly 8 months after to be exactly.

Gregory Pincus:


Born April 9th, 1903 to Elizabeth and Joseph Pincus in New Jersey. Learning biology from two uncles, Pincus continued his education at Cornell University and Harvard. He later became an instructor and researcher at Harvard where he would first start to make a true name for himself. To say that name was a good one is not exactly how this story goes.

Pincus was a full-fledged and loyal scientist. But he was a gambler as well. And his favorite thing to gamble on was himself and considering the fears that tend to fledge the American media, that may not have always been a bad thing. Anyway, Pincus became interested in how hormones affected the reproductive system early on and was the first one to complete in vitro fertilization with rabbits. Which had the media calling him a “mad scientist” and various other more eloquent but just as crazy sentiments. Pincus would struggle with his public reputation for years, because he never stopped betting on himself, no matter the stakes.

Sanger would come to him first, they would meet for quite some time and exchange letters on the concepts before any true questions and answers were set. When they first met, everything was a theory. They first had to come up with the idea of the pill, before them, there was never a medication that was taken daily as such. They tested spermicides, thought about temporary surgeries of sort. But the key for Sanger was for the women to be in control. She, if you could guess, was very callous about the trustworthy to the male species, and if women role was to change, the women needed to change that and ensure that.

It started with rats and almost ended with rats, in all honesty. What hormones would and wouldn’t work. How to keep the hormones working? Which hormones resulted in these side effects versus these side effects? What was the best way to deliver these hormones? To pioneer something is to have more questions than you thought there were answers. But the questions weren’t the real trouble for Pincus, but it was Pincus himself.

Pincus’ reputation was, at one point, too-tarnished to be touched by any university or institution for quite some time. The only project that would have him was the project that believed he was the only scientist crazy enough to commit to it and interested enough to see it through. Which, resulted in quite a turbulent affair for his family, at one point shacking up in a mental institute so that Pincus could research on the female patients and live nearby.

Once the concept of the pill was raised, it took quite some time for the hormonal balance to be created. For many years and during various attempts at research, women would continuously bail on the study because the symptoms at that time became too great to cope with.

Flashback to two years ago when male birth control research was halted because men couldn’t deal with the symptoms that women still deal with to this day. Even though, many men don’t want to be concerned with having a child early in life either, yet, they tell us our own struggles are less than they have experienced. Let me just say this, the difference between a male and female when sick would beg to differ.

Using all the contacts in his rolodex, and almost every type of unwelcome patient in the book as test subjects, Pincus proved to need a new play on the matter. Women kept dropping out of studies and he had trouble in communicating why they would want such a medication. Which is where John Rock first became involved. Together, the pair would invite any sort of patient they could muster and calculate from two different research zones for quite some time, until both were experiencing some testing difficulties.

Once they were finally successful in the creation and marketing of Birth Control, prescribed as Enovid, it was revealed that Pincus was sick and had been for some time. He died a few years later, but his work lives on. Especially as an plaque of his character with this book.

John Rock:

john-charles-rock-1890-1984-american-everettBorn March 24th, 1890 in Marlborough Massachusetts. Rock was a devoted Catholic and family man that devoted his life’s work to gynecology and obstetrics. Although the Church’s stance on contraception and abortions never changed while he was alive, Rock was shaped by his own experience and practice. He saw women who tried anything not to get pregnant, the secretaries who never returned, and women with more kids than fingers at some points. He knew the living conditions of households with more kids than could fiscally contain or, to say the euphemistic approach, their environment entailed. So, although Rock had hoped to see their stance change at some point

Rock was able, for some time, to convince some of his patients, the ones who truly wanted the pill, to work with the study. But, symptoms were the double-edge sword. Women felt severe nausea, bloating, various stomach ulcers, bloating, suicidal, depression, and anything the hormonal wheel could spin-up.

But when it came time for Enovid to be marketed to the people, John Rock became the key face in this matter. He looked like the good doctor. He was a loyal Catholic. And he knew how to talk to the upmost and lowest denominators of women in society, how to explain what Enovid was and how to use it. He wrote the publications that came along with the pill, along with the packaging, and made sure to work in clinics to help women in successfully using the pill. As far as the main stream media was concerned, John Rock and birth control was the package being sold.

Katharine McCormick:

0311-mccormick-a_x582Born August 27, 1875 in Dexter, Michigan. Katharine McCormick was the daughter of an upperclass family. She married as status, but loved him loyally. Although shortly after their marriage, her husband fell horribly mentally ill. Instead of locking him up and simply inheriting his money as were the options at the time period and expected, Katharine converted their lavish home into his own psychiatric facility with treatment areas and luxuries for him to enjoy when he could. She created this life for him for as long as possible.

When McCormick could, she found herself lured into social reform movements. Seeing her own entrapment by her situation and her husband’s few options, she was thrown into reform movements from every end. Including the suffragist movement where she met Margaret Sanger. Where they, together, influenced the changes that we reap the benefits of today.

However, to say that Katharine McCormick mainly funded the entire birth control research is closely true. She invented anytime they asked, offering more than requested, and talking for hours with Pincus, Rock, and Sanger on the science and influence of others countries. Although Pincus and Rock were sometimes slow with their informative letters, McCormick and Sanger were never out of touch. Especially when Sanger would fall ill and require the trustworthy Sanger to act not only as her eyes and ears, but also as her intuition.

She funded Pincus labs, his research, the hormones he required, his travel, even his living expenses on some points, she funded Rock and his research, hormones, and travel, along with Sanger’s many speaking arrangements if not already funded. Katharine was devoted, but was also limited by her own understanding. She never truly understood the ramifications this medication would have on the common people. But she understood that their would be a change, one for women to enter MIT and study science just as she might have pursued in another life.

All of these characters, although more unalike than if they tried, bound on a cause, with different ambitions, different motivations, but with full investments and an undeniable repercussion in the world.

This memoir reads as fiction, with a fast-pace and incredibly informative, I highly recommend grabbing this for your next debate.


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