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Timeline: The Pill

Genesis-1950 | 1951-1990  


Aristotle One of the oldest references to birth control comes from the Bible. In the book of Genesis men are called upon to practice coitus interruptus, commonly known as the "withdrawal" method.

384-322 B.C.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle is thought to be the first person to propose using natural chemicals such as cedar oil, lead ointment or frankincense oil as spermicides.

23-79 A.D.

Pliny, the Roman writer of Natural History, counsels his readers to refrain from sex to avoid pregnancy. He is the first known advocate of abstinence as a form of birth control.


Casanova includes in his memoirs details of his experimental forms of birth control. He recounts his attempts to use the empty rind of half a lemon as a primitive cervical cap.


In a major scientific breakthrough, scientists discover the existence of the female egg -- the ovum. Prior to this, it is only known that semen must enter the female body for conception to occur. This is the first step in understanding the science of human reproduction.


Charles Knowlton, a Massachusetts physician, invents a birth control solution to be injected into the uterus by syringe after intercourse. Various recipes for the water-based solution include salt, vinegar, liquid chloride, zinc sulfite or aluminum potassium sulfite. The syringe method will remain in popular use for the next 40 years.


A German doctor, Friedrich Wilde, offers patients a small cervical cap to cover the cervix between menstrual periods. This method is never widely adopted, but the "Wilde Cap," as it became known, is the precursor to the modern diaphragm.


Goodyear Charles Goodyear invents the technology to vulcanize rubber and puts it to use manufacturing rubber condoms, intrauterine devices, douching syringes, and "womb veils" (diaphragms).


Scientists learn that conception occurs in human reproduction when the sperm enters the female egg. Prior to this it was assumed that men created life and women just provided the home for it.


A wide assortment of birth control devices are available in America -- such as condoms, sponges, douching syringes, diaphragms and cervical caps -- from catalogs, pharmacists, dry-goods stores and even rubber vendors.


March 2: Congress passes the Comstock Law, an anti-obscenity act that specifically lists contraceptives as obscene material and outlaws the dissemination of them via the postal service or interstate commerce. At the time, the United States is the only western nation to enact laws criminalizing birth control.


Katharine McCormick Scientists conclude definitively that for human fertilization to occur there must be a union of the egg and the sperm.

Katharine Dexter McCormick is born into a wealthy and prominent family in Dexter, Michigan.


Born Maggie Louise Higgins, Margaret Sanger becomes the sixth child of a poor, working class, Irish Catholic immigrant family in Corning, New York.


Dr. Wilhelm Mensinga, a German scientist, invents a larger cervical cap. His model will gain widespread popularity and come to be known as "the diaphragm."


The first commercially manufactured birth control suppository is produced in England by London chemist W. J. Rendell. The quinine and "cacao-nut butter" suppository, known as "Rendell's," was somewhat effective and commonly used in England until World War II.


March 24: John Rock and twin sister Eleanor are born in Marlborough, Massachusetts to a working class Irish Catholic family.

Viennese gynecologist Emil Knauer discovers the existence of chemicals that control the body's metabolic processes. After he observes a wide variety of these chemical substances, in 1905 the mysterious chemicals are named hormones, from the Greek hormaô, "stir up" or "incite.".


Gregory Pincus is born in Woodbine, New Jersey to Russian Jewish immigrants.


McCormick Katharine McCormick, after majoring in biology, becomes one of the first women to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in science. Despite her accomplishment, she does not pursue a career and marries Stanley McCormick, heir to the International Harvester Company fortune.


Theodore Roosevelt McCormick's husband is diagnosed with schizophrenia. Fearing his disease is hereditary, McCormick vows never to have children and develops a staunch belief in the value of contraception.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is established to protect consumers from fraudulent medical products and quackery.


Margaret Sanger, now a nurse on New York's Lower East Side, dreams about finding a "magic pill" as easy to take as an aspirin that could be used for contraceptive purposes.


The Woman Rebel March: In her radical journal The Woman Rebel, Margaret Sanger instructs women on times when it would be wise for women to avoid pregnancy, such as in the case of illness or poverty. She does not give any instructions regarding specific methods for contraception, but the New York City postmaster bans the journal under the Comstock Law category of "obscene, lewd, lascivious" matter.

August: Margaret Sanger coins the term "birth control" and dares to use the phrase in the June 1914 issue of The Woman Rebel. For this crime and others, Sanger is indicted for nine violations of the Comstock Law. Rather than face the charges, she flees the country to continue her work in England.


Anthony Comstock dies, but his anti-birth control laws remain entrenched.

March: In New York City a group of women form the National Birth Control League, an antecedent of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.


Brownsville Clinic Sanger returns to New York to face trial. The charges against her are dropped, but she continues to challenge the Comstock Laws and brazenly launches a new publication dedicated to her cause, Birth Control Review.

Oct.16: Sanger, with her sister and a friend, opens the first birth control clinic in America, in Brooklyn, New York. For the first time in American history, women can receive organized instruction in birth control.

Oct. 26: After only 10 days, Sanger's clinic is raided by the vice squad and shut down. The women are arrested and all the condoms and diaphragms at the clinic are confiscated.


Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick first meet at one of Sanger's Boston lectures, and strike up an enduring friendship. Sympathizing with Sanger's movement, McCormick makes small contributions to the cause and smuggles diaphragms into the United States for Sanger's clinics.


The Crane decision, in the case against Sanger's operation of the clinic, is the first legal ruling to allow birth control to be used for therapeutic purposes.


August: The Nineteenth Amendment is ratified, giving women the right to vote.


Margaret Sanger establishes the American Birth Control League, the antecedent of the Planned Parent Federation of America.


Margaret Sanger successfully opens the first legal birth control clinic in the U.S. with the stated intent of only using contraceptives for medical purposes, such as the prevention of life-threatening pregnancies and in accordance with the Crane decision.


Scientists working independently in Japan (1924) and Austria (1927) devise the "Rhythm Method" of birth control. After figuring out that women are fertile approximately midway through the average menstrual cycle, they conclude that pregnancy can be avoided by abstaining from sex during that fertile period.


After graduating from Harvard Medical School and completing a residency in surgery and internships in maternity medicine and gynecology, Dr. John Rock is appointed an assistant in obstetrics at Harvard Medical School. He focuses his practice on treating women with fertility problems at Boston clinics.


Scientists make a crucial breakthrough in reproductive biology. The discovery that the pituitary gland functions as a "remote control system in human reproduction" leads directly to the invention of the first pregnancy test.


Almost 30 years after the discovery of hormones, scientists at the University of Rochester in New York identify progesterone, the ovarian hormone. They conclude that this hormone plays a crucial role in preparing the womb for and sustaining a pregnancy.


Doisy The human sex hormone estrogen is isolated and identified by Edward Doisy at Washington University in St. Louis.


During the Great Depression, companies eager to sell women contraceptives, but not permitted to by law, use the term "feminine hygiene" to market a wide array of over-the-counter products that are believed to have a contraceptive effect. One of the most popular products is the simple and cheap "Lysol douche," and scores of women rely solely on this ineffective and dangerous method to prevent pregnancy.


Pope Pius XI Gregory Pincus receives an appointment at Harvard University to teach in department of general physiology.

August 15: At the world assembly of Anglican bishops, known as the Lambeth Conference, a resolution is passed favoring limited acceptance of birth control. This resolution is a watershed for the Protestant Church.

December 31: The Roman Catholic Church makes its first definitive statement on birth control. Pope Pius XI issues an encyclical titled Casti Canubi (Of Chaste Marriage) calling birth control a sin, and opposing birth control by any artificial means.


In her dogged pursuit of birth control legalization, Margaret Sanger targets Massachusetts' puritanical laws. A petition is circulated to end the state's anti-birth control law. It is defeated, but Dr. John Rock is one of 15 physicians -- and the only Catholic -- to sign petition.


While an assistant professor at Harvard University, Gregory Pincus gains fame and notoriety at the age of 31 when he claims to have achieved in-vitro fertilization of rabbits. Pincus is vilified in the national press for tampering with life. Harvard does not grant Pincus tenure.


John Rock opens a rhythm method clinic in Boston -- the first of its kind in America.

Margaret Sanger orchestrates a court battle over a shipment of Japanese diaphragms to a doctor in the U.S. In a decision titled U.S. vs. One Package, the court rules that physicians can receive contraceptive devices and information via the mail unless prohibited by a specific local law. It is a major victory for Sanger and birth control advocates. The case legitimizes birth control commerce among the medical profession and leads to the American Medical Association (AMA) officially recognizing birth control as part of a doctor's medical practice.


While teaching at Harvard Medical School, Dr. John Rock engages in unheard of and subversive activities, covertly breaking Massachusetts' law by teaching medical school students about birth control.

The diaphragm is the most effective form of birth control available in America, but the least popular method due to its high cost and the need to see a physician. Instead, most women rely on inexpensive but less reliable commercial douches for contraception.


Chemistry professor Russell Marker discovers a way to make synthetic progesterone with Mexican wild yams known as cabeza de negro. His discovery makes progesterone production affordable and will become the basis for hormonal birth control.


John Rock puts his reputation on the line and publicly asks the state to let Massachusetts physicians advise patients on birth control.


pincus experiment Together with a former colleague from his Harvard days, Gregory Pincus founds a small, private laboratory in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, to pursue research away from the politics and restraints of academia.


Harvard endocrinologist Fuller Albright writes a seminal report that will come to be known as "Albright's Prophecy." As part of an analysis of serious menstrual disorders, he writes that preventing ovulation prevents pregnancy and explores the possibility of "birth control by hormone therapy."


Katharine McCormick's husband dies, giving her full control over his fortune.


Although still a devout Catholic, John Rock co-authors the book Voluntary Parenthood, aimed at explaining birth control methods to a general audience tired of coping with unwanted pregnancies.


Americans spend an estimated $200 million a year on contraceptives. Due to massive improvements over the past decade in condom quality and a growing awareness of the inadequacies of douches, "rubbers" are the most popular form of birth control on the market.

Although the vast majority of doctors approve of birth control for the good of families, anti-birth control laws on the books in thirty states still prohibit or restrict the sale and advertisement of contraceptive devices. It is a felony in Massachusetts to "exhibit, sell, prescribe, provide, or give out information" about them. In Connecticut, it is a crime for a couple to use contraception.


October: At the age of 75, Katharine McCormick turns her full attention to the problem of birth control. She writes Margaret Sanger a letter inquiring about current research and asks where her money might be best spent funding efforts to improve birth control.

Genesis-1950 | 1951-1990  

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