Oral Contraceptives: The History of Birth Control Pills

A pack of contraceptive pills
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The birth control pill was introduced to the public in the early 1960s. are synthetic hormones that mimic the way real estrogen and progestin works in a woman's body. The pill prevents ovulation—no new eggs are released by a woman who is on the pill because the pill tricks her body into believing she is already pregnant.

Early Contraception Methods

Ancient Egyptian women are credited with attempting the first form of birth control using a mixture of cotton, dates, acacia, and honey in the form of a suppository. They were somewhat successful—later research shows that fermented acacia is actually a spermicide.

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger was a lifelong advocate of women's rights and a champion of a woman's right to control conception. She was the first to use the term “birth control,” opened the country’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York, and initiated the American Birth Control League, which would eventually lead to Planned Parenthood.

It had been discovered in the 1930s that hormones prevented ovulation in rabbits. In 1950, Sanger underwrote the research necessary to create the first human birth control pill using these research findings. In her eighties at the time, she raised $150,000 for the project, including $40,000 from biologist Katherine McCormick, also a women’s rights activist and the beneficiary of a sizable inheritance.

Then Sanger met endocrinologist Gregory Pincus at a dinner party. She convinced Pincus to begin work on a birth control bill in 1951. He tested progesterone on rats first, with marked success. But he wasn’t alone in his efforts to devise an oral contraceptive. A gynecologist named John Rock had already started testing chemicals as contraceptives, and Frank Colton, a chief chemist at Searle, was in the process of creating a synthetic progesterone at the time. Carl Djerassi, a Jewish chemist who fled Europe for the United States in 1930, created a pill from synthetic hormones derived from yams, but he didn’t have the funding to produce and distribute it.

Clinical Trials

By 1954, Pincus—working together with John Rock—was ready to test his contraceptive. He did so successfully in Massachusetts, then they moved on larger trials in Puerto Rico which were also highly successful.

FDA Approval

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Pincus’ pill in 1957, but only to treat certain menstrual disorders, not as a contraceptive. Approval as a contraceptive was finally granted in 1960. By 1962, 1.2 million U.S. women were reportedly taking the pill and this figure doubled by 1963, increasing to 6.5 million by 1965.

Not all states were on board with the drug, however. Despite the FDA's approval, eight states outlawed the pill and Pope Paul VI took a public stand against it. By the late 1960s, serious side effects were beginning to come to light. Ultimately, Pincus’ original formula was taken off the market in the late 1980s and replaced with a less potent version that decreased some of the known health risks.

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Bellis, Mary. "Oral Contraceptives: The History of Birth Control Pills." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/history-of-birth-control-pills-4076662. Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 27). Oral Contraceptives: The History of Birth Control Pills. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-birth-control-pills-4076662 Bellis, Mary. "Oral Contraceptives: The History of Birth Control Pills." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-birth-control-pills-4076662 (accessed May 13, 2021).