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A brief history of the birth control pill

Photo: Flickr/mharrsch

Antiquity: Ancient Egyptian women use a combination of cotton, dates, honey and acacia as a suppository, and it turns out fermented acacia really does have a spermicidal effect. The Bible and the Koran both refer to coitus interruptus (the withdrawal method).

1914-1921 Activist Margaret Sanger coins the term “birth control,” opens first birth control clinic in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and starts the American Birth Control League, the precursor to Planned Parenthood.

1934 Endocrinologist Gregory Pincus creates a test tube rabbit — and is vilified as a Frankenstein.

Katherine McCormick & Margret Sanger. Courtesy: Smithsonian Institute

1951 Sanger and Pincus meet at a dinner party in New York; she persuades him to work on a birth control pill.

1951 Meanwhile, Carl Djerassi, a chemist in Mexico City, creates a pill by synthesizing hormones from Mexican yams. On a chemical level, the pill has been invented, but Djerassi isn’t equipped to test, produce or distribute it.

1952 The race is on. Pincus tests progesterone in rats and finds it works. He meets gynecologist John Rock, who has already begun testing chemical contraception in women. Frank Colton, chief chemist at the pharmaceutical company Searle, also independently develops synthetic progesterone.

1953 If Sanger is the activist behind the pill and Pincus the scientist, Katherine McCormick — biologist, women’s rights activist and heiress to a great fortune — is the money. She writes Pincus a check for $40,000 to conduct research.

1954 Rock and Pincus conduct the first human trials on 50 women in Massachusetts. It works.

1956 Large scale clinical trials are conducted in Puerto Rico, where there were no anti-birth control laws on the books. The pill is deemed 100 percent effective, but some serious side effects are ignored.

1957 The FDA approves the pill, but only for severe menstrual disorders, not as a contraceptive. An unusually large number of women report severe menstrual disorders.

1960 The pill is approved for contraceptive use.

1962 It’s an instant hit. After two years, 1.2 million Americans women are on the pill; after three years, the number almost doubles, to 2.3 million.

1964 But the pill is still controversial: It remains illegal in eight states. The Pope convenes the Commission on Population, the Family and Natality; many within the Catholic Church are in favor.

1965 Five years after the FDA approval, 6.5 million American women are on pill, making it the most popular form of birth control in the U.S.

1967 The controversy over the pill takes on a new dimension when African-American activists charge that Planned Parenthood, by providing the pill in poor, minority neighborhoods, is committing genocide.

1968 Pope Paul VI ultimately declares his opposition to the pill in the Humanae Vitae encyclical.

1969 Barbara Seaman publishes The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill, which exposes side effects including the risk of blood clots, heart attack, stroke, depression, weight gain and loss of libido.

1970 Senate hearings on the safety of the pill are disrupted by women demanding a voice on the issue.

1979 Sales of the pill drop by 24 percent in four years due to publicity about health risks.

1988 The original high-dose pill is taken off the market; an FDA study shows the heath benefits of newer pills, including a decreased risk of ovarian cancer, iron deficiency anemia and pelvic inflammatory disease.


1997 Not just a contraceptive any more — the FDA approves Ortho Pharmaceutical’s Tri-Cyclen pill as treatment for acne.

2000 The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules that prescription contraception must be covered by health insurance offered by employers.

2003 The FDA approves Seasonale, a pill that gives women only four periods a year.

2007 What could be next? Lybrel makes the annoying period a thing of the past for those willing to try it.

2010 Fifty years after the FDA approval, problems remain: there are currently 1,100 lawsuits pending against Bayer Healthcare Corporation regarding blood clots, heart attacks and strokes allegedly caused by the popular pills Yaz, Yazmin and the generic Ocella.