People & Events: G. D. Searle Develops the Pill
When scientist Gregory Pincus first approached the pharmaceutical company G. D. Searle about funding research for an oral contraceptive, Searle's immediate response was no. In the early 1950s, the last thing Searle -- or any of the other major drug companies -- wanted to get involved in was the controversial area of birth control.
A Risky Pursuit
At this time, bringing a birth control product to market was a huge risk for any company. No one in the drug industry wanted to deal with the anti-birth control laws still on the books in 30 states. These statutes severely restricted the advertising and sale of any contraceptive product. There was also the issue of religious objections from the Catholic Church. The drug industry feared a potential boycott from Catholics, who comprised 25% of the American population. For Searle, a boycott could mean the loss of one fourth of its personnel and a considerable portion of its hospital business.
A Drug Without a Market?
Beyond the legal and religious complications, Searle executives just didn't believe there would be a huge market for an oral contraceptive. The men at Searle found it inconceivable that any woman would consider taking pills every single day just for contraception. The prevailing wisdom was that no healthy woman would ever willingly take a drug that neither treated nor prevented disease.
Despite the fact that Searle was not interested in developing birth control products, they developed one accidentally. Frank Colton, a chemist at the company, created an orally effective synthetic progesterone compound, called norethynodrel. The intended use of the compound was for medical purposes, but Searle discovered that the drug worked as an anti-ovulent as well.
Colton had been working on synthetic progesterone for another purpose. After cortisone had proved lucrative for the pharmaceutical industry, Searle and other drug companies had instructed their researchers to find more uses for steroids, including progesterone, in the hope of finding the next miracle drug. Once scientists understood the role of progesterone in the female reproductive cycle, they knew there would be a market for treating women suffering from variety of gynecological disorders. When Gregory Pincus, who had a prior working relationship with Searle, contacted the drug company about his birth control research for Margaret Sanger, he had no idea how serendipitous his timing would prove to be. He would not have to create the drug -- he would just need to test it.
Although the technology for the Pill already existed, Searle was not willing to pay for the expensive project by funding it directly. Instead, the company took a risk and let Pincus have samples of the synthetic progesterone for his research. Throughout the early 1950s, the drug company kept a very low profile about their involvement with the Pincus birth control pill trials.
Eye-Opening Market Potential
It wasn't until they released the drug in 1957 -- as a treatment for gynecological disorders -- that Searle had a change of heart about oral contraceptives. Despite the fact that the drug was designated for medical problems, women all across America started using the medication for the contraceptive benefits. Searle took notice of women's desires for an easy and effective female-controlled contraceptive and opened their eyes to the Pill's potential. By the late 50s, Searle was delighted with their gamble to support research that other drug companies and the government had avoided. They began exerting pressure on the Pill researchers to speed up their trials.
Within two years of government approval, the Pill passed through the lips of 1.2 million American women every day. It was a giant boon to Searle, who enjoyed a monopoly on the drug. Even after other pharmaceutical companies put out their own versions of the Pill, many women stayed loyal to Enovid, and Searle's Pill sales remained strong. In 1964 alone, Searle took in $24 million in net profits from Pill sales. The Pill, the contraceptive that no company initially wanted produce, turned out to be Searle's best selling product for years.
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