Former Wall Street Journal reporter Eig (Get Capone: The Secret Plot that Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster, 2010, etc.) recounts the origin story of the oral contraceptive—“the pill”—as a scientific answer to a cultural conundrum: how to have sex without pregnancy.
Margaret Sanger (1879-1996), a wily, independent feminist and sex educator who kept her own apartment after marrying oil tycoon James Noah Slee in 1922, was a lifelong advocate for giving women the ability to enjoy sex without the worry of pregnancy. Eig opens in 1950 with Sanger, “an old woman who loved sex,” looking to science for a contraceptive that women could control (unlike the condom) and that was extremely effective (unlike the diaphragm). She sought out Gregory Pincus (1903-1967), a former Harvard University biologist denied tenure and pilloried in the press as a “Victor Frankenstein” for his efforts to mate rabbits in a petri dish, experiments that were the forerunners to in vitro fertilization. With starter funding from Sanger, Pincus developed a hormone treatment for rabbits and rats that prevented ovulation, and Sanger enlisted philanthropist and suffragist Katharine McCormick (1875-1967) to fund Pincus’ development of a similar hormone treatment to do the same for women. Gynecologist John Rock (1890-1984), the fourth “crusader,” teamed with Pincus on his research; by the mid-1950s, they developed a working trial of what is now universally known as “the pill.” Throughout the book, Eig displays a readable, contemporary style as he chronicles a similar clash of scientific and social progress as Thomas Maier’s Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Master and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love (2009).
A well-paced, page-turning popular history featuring a lively, character-driven blend of scientific discovery and gender politics.