The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 4: Margaret Sanger’s “Magic Pill”

Katharine McCormick

Katharine McCormick

Welcome to the fourth installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. In the previous installment, progesterone, the birth control pill’s active ingredient, could only be administered intravenously. Scientists working in Mexico figured out how to alter its chemical structure so that progesterone would be active when taken orally.

Katharine McCormick was born into a moneyed family and was, in 1904, the second female graduated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After receiving her degree in biology, she married a wealthy man, but shortly into the marriage she gained control of her husband’s estate due to his illness. She put a lot of this money to good use: In the 1920s, she aided Margaret Sanger’s efforts to smuggle diaphragms into the country.


Katharine McCormick, a philanthropist and one of the first scientifically trained women, provided early funding for the Pill.


Her involvement with Sanger didn’t end there; indeed, both Sanger and McCormick had a lot in common, despite Sanger’s working-class childhood and McCormick’s privileged upbringing. According to historian Elaine Tyler May, McCormick and Sanger both had “a tremendous faith in the possibility of science,” and Sanger “believed that science held the key to contraception and to women’s emancipation.” Back in the ’20s, Sanger wrote:

Science must make woman the owner, the mistress of herself. Science, the only possible savior of mankind, must put it in the power of woman to decide for herself whether she will or will not become a mother.

In 1950, McCormick again joined forces with Sanger. In the mid-’40s, after a countrywide tour of family-planning clinics, Sanger had come to the conclusion that the diaphragm was not an adequate form of birth control, revitalizing her hope for a “magic pill.” Neither pharmaceutical companies nor the government wanted to invest in contraceptive research, considering it a “disreputable” area of study, so Sanger hatched a scheme to bankroll the independent development of an oral contraceptive. At Sanger’s behest, McCormick provided the lion’s share of funding for the project — more than $2 million (compared to the value of a dollar in the year 2000, that would be about the equivalent of $12 million). Sanger and McCormick tapped Gregory Pincus to conduct the research. McCormick, thanks to her education in biology, oversaw the research in addition to funding it. Continue reading

Endometriosis Treatment

endo medsIt’s still March, so it’s still Endometriosis Awareness Month! Today we’ll be looking at endometriosis treatment questions and answers. If you missed the first two posts in this series, you can click to read more about an overview of endometriosis as well as info about diagnosing endometriosis.


Why are there so many treatment options? Which one is best?

There are so many options because there is no “magic bullet” option — that is, no single treatment that works best for everyone. The two main categories of treatment include medication and surgery, but each option has its own benefits and drawbacks. When deciding on the best option for a given individual, some helpful questions to consider might be:

  • Do I have any current health concerns that would render some treatments unsafe? What types of health risks are acceptable to me?
  • Am I currently trying to conceive, or will I be in the next six to 12 months? Will I ever want to be pregnant in the future?
  • Aside from significant health risks, what types of factors — side effects, treatment frequency or duration, cost — would make a treatment difficult for me? How long do I need this treatment to last before I can reevaluate?

For specific questions, your best bet is to check with your health care provider. Continue reading

The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 3: From Injection to Ingestion

Carl Djerassi with his assistant, Arelina Gonzalez, 1951

Carl Djerassi with his assistant, Arelina Gonzalez, 1951

Welcome to the third installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. In the previous installment, we learned about the iconoclastic chemist Russell Marker, who figured out how to synthesize large quantities of progesterone — the birth control pill’s active ingredient — from a yam called barbasco that grew wild in Mexico.

In 1949, Russell Marker dropped out of science — “I considered all chemists to be crooks,” he bitterly opined — and a scientist named Carl Djerassi was hired to head the lab at Syntex, the hormone-synthesizing laboratory in Mexico that Marker had co-founded in 1944. Within a few years, Syntex was a major player on the synthetic-hormone scene in Europe and the Americas.


After Luis Miramontes’ successful experiments, all of the elements for Sanger’s “magic pill” were in place.


Although progesterone could be manufactured in large quantities at this time, it could only be given intravenously. Progesterone was being used therapeutically to prevent miscarriage and treat excessively heavy menstrual periods. The lack of alternatives to injections represented a problem for these people — a daily pill would be easier and more convenient than frequent injections. In 1950, Syntex set their sights on the development of a synthetic form of progesterone that was more effective in smaller doses and could be administered orally rather than by intravenous injections. Such a development would be necessary before Margaret Sanger’s dream of a “magic pill” could come true. Continue reading

The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 2: Barbasco and the Roots of Hormonal Contraception

Russell Marker. Image: Penn State University Archives

Russell Marker. Image: Penn State University Archives

Welcome to the second installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill. Previously, we learned about the role a sex hormone called progesterone plays in inhibiting ovulation. Scientists had no easy way to isolate significant amounts of this chemical and wanted to find a quick and inexpensive method for synthesizing large quantities of progesterone.

Russell Marker was born to Maryland sharecroppers in 1903. Hoping to escape rural life, Marker was one of only two students in his junior-high class to attend high school. He graduated in three years and enrolled at the University of Maryland, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry. He needed one more class to receive his doctorate, but refused to take it, believing he had already mastered his chosen subject, organic chemistry. He was only interested in working in the lab and thought the required course would be a waste of his time. (The university did eventually award him an honorary doctorate in 1987.)


A wild-growing yam in Mexico provided chemicals that could be refined into progesterone, the active ingredient in the Pill.


At the time, the scientific community was abuzz with discoveries being made about hormones. They held tremendous potential for research, but scientists couldn’t figure out how to isolate large quantities of them for study. Up for a challenge, Marker set out to find a way to synthesize one hormone, called progesterone, in abundance. He hypothesized that plants from the genus Dioscorea, which includes yams and agaves, would be cheap sources of steroid hormones. Marker was specifically hoping to find plants rich in sapogenins, which are chemically similar to cholesterol. Continue reading

The History of the Birth Control Pill, Part 1: Hormones, Our “Chemical Messengers”

Welcome to the first installment of our series chronicling the history of the birth control pill, from our discovery of how hormones work, to the synthesis of these hormones from an inedible wild Mexican yam, to the creation of a pill that changed the world.

Underneath the surface of a large swath of Southern Mexico’s jungles lay the enormous roots of a wild yam, Dioscorea composita, known locally as barbasco. Mostly it was considered a nuisance, as it could get in the way of subsistence agriculture, but it did have its uses. Indigenous people used it as a fish poison, and traditional Mesoamerican healers used it to treat rheumatism, snakebites, muscular pain, and skin conditions. When the root was fermented in alcohol and put on aching joints, it was believed to work as a pain reliever.


The idea of a birth control pill was born in 1912 when Margaret Sanger dreamed of a “magic pill.”


Barbasco’s medicinal uses might not be surprising, given that scientists derived a chemical from the yam that led to the development of cortisone and oral contraceptives, both of which had sizable impacts on medicine and society. Oral contraceptives would not have been possible without a cheap and abundant source of progesterone, which was easily synthesized from the root after an American chemist, Russell Marker, discovered a process for converting a cholesterol found in barbasco’s roots to progesterone, a key ingredient in the Pill.

In the decades before this chemist’s excursion to Mexico, first-wave feminism was brewing in turn-of-the-century United States, and birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger demanded access to contraception — in 1915, she invented the term “birth control,” and as early as 1912, the idea of a birth control pill had been envisioned — again, by Sanger, who wrote of her hope for a “magic pill.” A nurse, Sanger was spurred to action by the horror of watching women die prematurely after having too many children, while other women died from botched abortions. Continue reading

Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does, Part 8: Hormonal Option without Pelvic Exam (HOPE)

Welcome to the latest installment of “Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does,” a series on Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona’s blog that highlights Planned Parenthood’s diverse array of services — the ones Jon Kyl doesn’t know about.


I remember sitting in the exam room, fidgeting with my paper gown and nervously explaining to the doctor that my boyfriend and I had come very close to having sex already, and I would please like to be on birth control pills when it actually happened.

“Sure,” he said, swinging open the stirrups. “Just as soon a we do a pelvic exam.”

I didn’t want one. I really didn’t want one.


While it’s common for health care providers in the United States to require or routinely perform a pelvic examination — with or without a Pap test — prior to prescribing hormonal birth control, several health organizations state that a pelvic exam isn’t necessary in order to be safely prescribed hormonal contraceptive pills, patches, shots, or rings. For instance, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises, “A pelvic exam is not needed to get most forms of birth control from a health care provider except for the intrauterine device (IUD), diaphragm, and cervical cap.” In such cases, HOPE (Hormonal Option without Pelvic Exam) may be an appropriate alternative. Continue reading