A comprehensive account of the origins and fortunes of a 20th-century landmark: the Pill.
Many previous studies of oral contraceptives claim them to be a North American contribution to world culture. But according to Marks (History of Medicine/Univ. of London), the Pill had many parents: European sex-hormone researchers early in the last century (whose work with steroids led to a new understanding of the reproductive process), refugee scientists who brought that research to American laboratories after fleeing totalitarian regimes, Mexican pharmaceutical laboratories, and a few homegrown eccentrics like Russell Marker (whose work with a Central American wild yam vine in the 1940s led to the first synthesis of progesterone, which in turn allowed North American pharmaceutical manufacturers to break the European monopoly on sex-hormone production). These international forebears helped spread the Pill to a broad world market, although with unintended consequences: marketed at first largely to older married women who had already had children, it soon became the contraceptive of choice for a younger crowd, a development that helped touch off the Sexual Revolution. It had other implications as well, and it even sparked theological controversy—especially within the Catholic Church, where a papal encyclical banning the use of oral contraceptives met with widespread defiance and marked a sudden decline in papal power. (Marks notes that in the wake of this latter-day schism “the number of Catholics who believed that the Pope derived his authority directly from Jesus declined between 1963 and 1974 from 70 to 42 percent.”) Although manufacturers hoped that the Pill would be a panacea for the problem of world overpopulation, the countries that needed it most (such as India) rejected it for religious and ideological reasons, while the arrival of AIDS lessened the use of oral contraceptives in other countries (even as the Pill proved efficacious in battling certain cancers).
A rich, multifaceted, sometimes confusing story—but Marks tells it well, yielding a solid work of social and technological history.