Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

Gregory Pincus and One Little Pill that Saved the World

Gregory Pincus and One Little Pill that Saved the World

Photograph via Flickr by SWoo

[quote]It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us.

—David Attenborough[/quote]

A funny thing happened to the world population in the nineteenth century. It doubled. After taking millions of years to reach one billion in the early 1800s, the population closed in on two billion as the century closed. By 1960, it surpassed three billion. It then took a mere 14 years to eclipse four billion, 13 years to reach five billion, and then just 12 years to reach six billion in 1999. Thus, the world’s population was not only growing, it was doing so faster and faster.

And then it did a funny thing again. Its rate of increase slowed. When the world population recently hit seven billion, it was the first time the gap between the billion milestones was longer than the one before it. Moreover, nearly every study projects that the rate will continue to slow. What was once considered an impending global catastrophe has since been delayed and perhaps averted altogether.

This development is important, not just for the modern world, but for its future. There are many reasons, and consequences, for this development, but perhaps no single person is more responsible for it than the most recent figure on our list—an American scientist named Gregory Goodwin Pincus, the inventor of the modern birth control pill and a man that might have saved the world.{{1}}

It was called “Enovid.” Combining a certain estrogen, called mestranol, and a steroidal progestin, called norethynodrel, Enovid was the first combined oral contraception pill in history. Ironically, Enovid had a father. His name was Gregory Pincus.

Unlike so many other figures in the Top 30, Pincus did not live a terribly interesting life upon which I can expound for far too many words before arriving at his importance. Rather, we pick up with Pincus in the 1950s, when he’s nearly 50 years old. Until this point, he was an accomplished scientist with degrees from Cornell, Harvard, and Cambridge, but by no means was his resume remarkable enough to be included in a list such as ours. But then, in 1951, he met activist Margaret Sanger, and this duo changed the future of Western civilization.

Pincus’s background was in physiology, his field of instruction as a Harvard professor starting in 1930, and hormonal biology, which he studied while teaching. In 1934, his successful “in vitro” fertilization of rabbits brought him mild fame. However, his controversial work with getting rabbits to asexually reproduce cost him tenure, and Pincus eventually left Harvard. In 1944, he co-founded the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, a lab at which many of his ensuing breakthroughs occurred. It was an impressive career, but he received only marginal attention due to his narrow focus on hormones.{{2}}

Margaret Sanger, meanwhile, was already a nationally recognized birth control trailblazer. In 1916, she opened the first birth control clinic. Five years later, she founded the American Birth Control League, which, in 1942, became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.{{3}} She was a tireless champion of women’s reproductive rights, a devastating enemy of conservatives, and she campaigned across the country in an effort to open contraceptive avenues to American women.

It should be noted that Pincus’s birth control pill was far from the first form of contraception. Chapter 38 of Genesis notes Onan’s practice of coitus interruptus to avoid impregnating his brother-in-law’s widow.{{4}} The Talmud sanctions the “sponge” in certain situations. As early as 1850 B.C., the ancient Egyptians recorded their experiments with pessaries, including proto-spermicides. Since those ancient examples, history is rife with humans trying to avoid the biological imperative while still dabbling in the anatomical one.{{5}} By the twentieth century, the most popular forms of contraception included diaphragms, condoms, and the rhythm method. The problem was that none of these were particularly popular. Men didn’t like the condom, women didn’t like the diaphragm, and, for various reasons, the rhythm method had the highest failure rate of all.

[pullquote_right]Sanger asked Pincus to tackle the problem of a more practical contraceptive method. He solved it within months.[/pullquote_right]

By 1950, Sanger knew that a simple, cheap, effective alternative was essential in her effort to make birth control accessible to every woman and couple who desired it. The path to that breakthrough went through understanding how to tinker with hormonal biology, and she was about to run into the field’s foremost expert.

Pincus and Sanger met at a 1951 fundraiser hosted by the medical director and vice-president of Planned Parenthood. Sanger ran her ideas by an interested Pincus, who agreed that contraception could be regulated; the trick was to regulate it safely and with minimal side-effects. Scientists were already shooting doses of progesterone into lab animals to suppress ovulation, but regular hypodermic injections was not what Margaret Sanger (nor, I imagine, any other female on Earth) had in mind. She secured Pincus a research grant from PPFA and asked him to tackle the problem of a more practical contraceptive method.

The brilliant Pincus solved it within months. He worked with Dr. Min Chueh Chang (who was later instrumental in the creation of the first “test tube baby”) at Pincus’s Worcester Foundation, and their trials on animals produced a successful oral contraceptive. The following year, Sanger tapped 50 times more money for Pincus than he had been given by Planned Parenthood, this time from philanthropic suffragist Katherine McCormick. By 1953, Pincus was conducting human trials via gynecologist John Rock and his infertility patients, a crucially important phase. Rock found that the right dosage of Pincus’s progesterone usually suppressed ovulation. Unfortunately, that “usually” was a sticking point; only about 85 percent of the time was it effective, and large amounts of the drug were needed just to get it that high.

So Pincus went back to work. He surveyed chemical companies across the country for steroids that resembled progesterone. The most likely candidate, he observed, was norethynodrel, a chemical invented by Frank Colton of G.D. Searle and Company in 1952.{{6}}

Colton had no idea that his creation remotely resembled a piece of the oral contraception puzzle, but Pincus did. He combined it with mestranol, an estrogen, and by 1955, this combined oral contraceptive pill was ready for field tests. Since providing contraceptives of any kind was illegal in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Pincus tucked his tests away in Puerto Rico, where, the following year, he hired Dr. Edris Rice-Wray Carson, who worked with an extensive network of birth control clinics made available to the island’s low-income population. It took only nine months before the results affirmed what Pincus already knew. They had their pill. Later tests in Haiti, Mexico, and then Los Angeles not only confirmed the results, but also showed an enormous interest from women who were finally offered an easy, painless, and less invasive alternative to their meager birth control options.

In 1957, the American Federal Drug Administration approved the drug, which Pincus called Enovid, for treatment of menstrual disorders; its menstrual cycle regulation was a bonus of this creation that was largely meant for something else. This seamless integration into medical circles aided its acceptance. By 1960, less than one decade after Margaret Sanger met Gregory Pincus, the FDA approved Enovid to serve specifically as the first ever birth control pill.

Pincus died six years later of a rare blood disease, but his work lives on. Indeed, he might have even saved the world.

I admit, such a statement might seem like hyperbole, but I think it must be considered. It’s rare that we can make that claim about anyone.{{7}} Here, however, it might be apt.

If, as many have argued, the whole of world history has been tribes and civilizations competing for limited resources—with proxy fronts over competing religions and cultures—then the premise that our population was increasing at a faster and faster rate leads to the natural conclusion that global resources would one day run short. That day would happen when we presumably had larger, more abundant, and deadlier weapons than ever and, due to limited resources, more urgency than ever to use them. What follows would have been an unprecedented military struggle that could dwarf what the U.S. and Soviet Union were capable of at the Cold War’s height. Many pessimists argued that our civilization was on an inevitable crash course with this kind of worldwide doom; it was only a matter of when this collision would occur.

But, as so many times before, science came to the rescue. In this case, it was via Gregory Pincus. Birth control in pill form must have once seemed like such a foreign, futuristic concept, limited only to science fiction novels and movies with v-stripe uniforms and cheesy visual effects. Pincus made that future a reality. We are now a species that can safely control its population, or at least has the scientific ability to do so, if not yet the general will.

I say that because the entire world has not yet caught on to this paradigm-shifting invention. Recent population studies show that while the West has experienced a sharp curbing of population growth, Latin America, Africa, and south Asia are almost totally making up for it. The world population’s growth has indeed been slowing, but that’s mostly because Western levels of reproduction are slowing to levels that barely replace the last generation.{{8}}

The causes for the West’s flirtation with subfertility rates include, of course, better education and faster economic development, but those deviations existed before 1960, when population climbed at unprecedented speeds throughout Europe and the United States. It’s “the pill” that allowed that climb to level off and soon start its way back down.

[pullquote_right]From Sanger’s search to Colton’s chemical, Pincus was the constant and hub of the pill’s development.[/pullquote_right]

Pincus’s creation was important in more ways than just population figures. Is it a coincidence that the FDA’s 1960 approval of the pill as a contraceptive kicks off the decade most associated with sex? The Sixties birthed (you better believe pun intended) the famous sexual revolution, which broke centuries worth of shackles on sexual mores. Monogamous relationships grew less common, while premarital sex did the opposite. Unlike nearly every other method of birth control available to them, the pill allowed a liberated woman to be sexually spontaneous. They could be as free to engage in recreational sex as a man could. Now, the modern Western world barely blinks at a couple living together before marriage. Premarital sex is accepted by just about everyone.{{9}} This momentum for women’s sexual equality culminated in the legalization of abortion across the West.{{10}} The fact that the aforementioned collapse in Western birthrates coincides with freer sexual relationships shows how the pill has revolutionized Western society.

With a leveling of sexual terms came a breakthrough in women’s liberation. Ancient attitudes about classical gender roles were obliterated. Women’s careers could take precedent over a family. They could avoid a pregnancy and all the difficulties that might entail for their personal lives and careers. Women pushed for equal treatment and equal pay in the workplace.

Ultimately, achieving the goal of social, political, and economic equality was never really possible until Enovid and its successors. We now have powerful female CEOs and role models in athletics, two fields that were almost exclusively male until this movement. The Western world has had a female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, a female Chancellor of Germany, and it will soon have a female President of the United States.{{11}} All of this after Pincus’s birth control pill allowed that discernible spike in women’s liberation. One could make the case that the pill marks the most important demarcation in women’s history.{{12}}

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t close this entry without a direct acknowledgement of the important collaborators that contributed to Pincus’s breakthrough. Remember, Sanger stimulated the idea and McCormick funded it. Pincus worked with Dr. Chang to invent it, he needed doctors Rock and Carson to field test it, and he needed Colton’s drug to refine it and make it more effective. Pincus may have been the father of the pill, but there were numerous midwives.

Still, Pincus’s role as the lynchpin cannot be ignored. Of all these contributors, he was the most responsible. He dedicated his time and extensive knowledge to research, organize, and create, knowing exactly how to tap the necessary resources and colleagues. From Sanger’s search to Colton’s chemical, Pincus was the constant and hub of the pill’s development.

If he was solely responsible for the pill, he easily could have made this list’s top 20. The pill has affected Western society like few other inventions. If we predicted the world’s future, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the pill will eventually travel to every corner of every continent as a simple, practical strategy to plan families and control population, which would reduce poverty, hunger, crime, and the strain on the earth’s precious resources.

When I wrap up these entries, I usually restate how much that month’s historical figure changed the world. With Gregory Goodwin Pincus, I remind you that he may have well saved it. For his important role in changing Western society and its future, he is the 25th most influential figure in Western history.

[[1]]Back in February, when I wrote about Philip IV as #29, the first footnote read: “I’d say this Top 30 series has three people to whom even a relatively educated person would respond with, “Who?!” Philip IV is one of them. Another will be revealed in just a few months.” We’ve arrived at that second of the three. Pincus is probably the most obscure person on this list. He holds several other distinctions, too: he was born in 1903, making him the only figure on our list born in the twentieth century; he died in 1967, making him our most modern figure; and he’s also our first American. (To this point we’ve had two figures from ancient Greece, two from medieval France, one Pole, and one Russian.)[[1]]

[[2]]Not unlike me in middle school.[[2]]

[[3]]The acronym for Planned Parenthood was PPFA, a blatant and bald-faced theft of the far more famous Presidential Politics for America weblog by the imitable Ian Cheney.[[3]]

[[4]]A classic Biblical tale of many Sunday sermons.[[4]]

[[5]]Lactational amenorrhea was popular for millennia after the practice was started by the Egyptians. The Greeks, ever the tinkerers, found plants with contraceptive and abortificient properties. One of the more effective plants, Silphium, was so effective and became so popular that it was said to have been worth its weight in silver! Curiously, it only grew around their colony of Cyrene, in modern Libya. It could not be successfully grown anywhere else (but oh how they tried). As a result, the enormous demand bulldozed the limited crop all together and it went extinct by the second century B.C.. The sound of every Mediterranean man slapping their foreheads at the same time is said to have been recorded by the ancient Chinese.[[5]]

[[6]]G.D. Searle and Company has since been absorbed by our overlords at Pfizer.[[6]]

[[7]]In fact, I can only think of one other person that can be considered as someone who literally saved the world: this guy.[[7]]

[[8]]Germany “leads” the pack, with a jaw-droppingly infertile birthrate of just 1.36 children per mother. (Fewer German babies were born in 2011 than in all of its history.) The number “2.00” is the best reference point for this statistic, as that means the two children replace their parents. But in Italy, the birthrate sits at 1.41. In Spain, it’s 1.48. The United Kingdom and France barely average 2 between them (U.K. at 1.9, France at 2.08). The U.S., that booming country of opportunity and dreams of three kids and a picket fence, has slowed to 2.06 children per woman. Meanwhile, dozens of countries in Africa and south Asia are well north of 4.[[8]]

[[9]]Except by everyone’s parents.[[9]]

[[10]]The United States, in particular, experienced a revolution in its attitude toward abortion. Throughout the 1960s, many states loosened their birth control and abortion laws, and President Johnson’s Committee on the Status of Women called for a repeal of all abortion laws. In 1973, the hallmark Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court case injected the federal government into the issue, and abortion became legal coast to coast.[[10]]

[[11]]What, too early for predictions? You should have told me last November.[[11]]

[[12]]What would be its competitors for such a claim? Suffrage was on a nation by nation basis. Property and personal rights have evolved unevenly across centuries. I don’t think any one particular moment, initiative, or invention stacks up to the pill in terms of unleashing new possibilities for one-half of the human race. (Runner up: Title IX.)[[12]]