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The Pill | Article

Katharine Dexter McCormick (1875-1967)

MIT Museum

In the 1950s, when the United States government, medical institutions and the pharmaceutical industry wanted nothing to do with contraceptive research, funding for the development of the Pill came from a very unlikely source -- a single benefactor. Katharine McCormick provided almost every single dollar necessary to develop the oral contraceptive.

Not a Typical Lady
For a woman once described as being "rich as Croesus," philanthropic acts were nothing unusual. However, McCormick's willingness to fund such a controversial project, at a time when 30 states still had laws on the books restricting the sale and use of contraceptives, was a bold move. But McCormick was not a typical society matron.

An Unusual Education
Born into a prominent Chicago family in 1875, McCormick's roots went straight back to the Mayflower. Unlike many women of her class, McCormick was encouraged by her father to pursue an education. In 1904, she was awarded a bachelor's degree in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Tragedy Strikes
Despite her education and interests, McCormick did what was expected of a woman of her class. After graduation, she married Stanley McCormick, the wealthy heir to the International Harvester Company fortune. Their storybook marriage, however, was soon crippled by tragedy. Two years into the marriage, her dashing young husband developed schizophrenia and was soon lost to dementia. It was widely believed that schizophrenia was hereditary. McCormick, loath to pass on the terrible disease to her offspring, vowed never to have children.

Voting Rights for Women
Katharine turned her attention to philanthropy and activism. An early feminist, she was deeply committed to winning women the vote and was a prominent member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She firmly believed that a woman's right to control her body was as important as her right to vote. It was during her suffragist days that she first crossed paths with legendary birth control activist Margaret Sanger.

Committed to the Cause
The two activists met in 1917 when McCormick attended a lecture Sanger gave in Boston. Afterward, they kept in touch. McCormick was committed to Sanger's cause, and even helped out by smuggling diaphragms into the country for Sanger's birth control clinics during her trips abroad in the 1920s. Yet, despite her great wealth, she was not ready to provide substantial funding for birth control research. Enmeshed in a bitter battle with her husband's family over control of his wealth, McCormick chose to focus her philanthropy on family-approved areas such as schizophrenia research.

In 1947 Katharine McCormick's husband died, and everything changed. She was awarded full control of his estate, placing $15 million at her disposal. At age 75, she was finally free to pursue her personal ambitions. McCormick turned her attention to birth control.

MIT Museum

Female-Controlled Contraception
As soon as Margaret Sanger told her about her vision of a pill as easy to take as an aspirin, McCormick was hooked on the project. She too believed in the importance of female-controlled contraception. This was the age of the polio vaccine and other miracle drugs, and McCormick, educated as a scientist, placed great faith in biochemistry. At first Sanger tried to convince McCormick to spread out her donations and fund research at various universities in the U.S. and abroad. But McCormick had little confidence in the academic approach. She wanted results, not pure research, and she wanted it fast. She was determined to see an oral contraceptive in her lifetime.

An Important Meeting
On June 8, 1953, Sanger took McCormick to a small lab on the outskirts of Worcester, Massachusetts. They met with a scientist Sanger thought capable of developing her pill. At the end of their first meeting, McCormick took out her checkbook and wrote Gregory Pincus a check for $40,000, a small fortune at the time. It would be the first of many checks she would write over the course of the research.

Active Participant
Not content to be a silent donor, McCormick moved east from Santa Barbara to actively monitor the development of the birth control pill. She followed every stage of the project and constantly urged the researchers to move faster with the drug trials. The nearly six-foot-tall McCormick was described by Dr. Pincus' wife as a warrior: "she carried herself like a ramrod. Little old woman she was not. She was a grenadier."

When the Pill came on the market in 1960, the scientists and doctors involved in developing the Pill were thrust in the national spotlight for their contribution to science. McCormick's remarkable contribution was soon forgotten. Her death on December 28, 1967, at the age of 92, did not even merit an obituary in any of the major papers. Although few recalled Katharine McCormick's role in the development of the Pill at the time, in recent years, historians have recognized her contribution.

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