Birth-control legend Carl Djerassi was many things: immigrant, scientist, novelist, antihistamine patent holder, beard wearer, and of course, "father of the pill." Or was he?
The pharmaceutical pioneer died last Friday at 91, after a long and remarkably productive life—and in the many tributes that have poured in, Djerassi is often given the title. He famously synthesized the key ingredient in oral contraceptives, the progestin norethindrone. Working out of a small lab in Mexico City in 1951, he and his colleagues at the pharmaceutical company Syntex created the ingredient from a species of inedible yam while on a quest to create an arthritis medication. Without it, hormonal birth control wouldn’t exist.
But Djerassi himself downplayed his role in birthing the pill over the years, saying, “I'm certain that if we didn't do our work then someone else would have come along shortly afterwards and done it.”
As it turns out, Djerassi isn’t the only man to have been called the “father of the pill”—many other figures have also been dubbed the dad (or mom) of the oral contraceptive, whose path to pharmacy shelves was historically long and winding. Let’s meet the parents.
Margaret Sanger (September 14, 1879 – September 6, 1966)
Sanger was a heavyweight reproductive rights activist—in fact, she coined the term “birth control.” As a nurse and sex educator in New York City, she witnessed the complications of unwanted pregnancies first-hand and believed women should be empowered to control their reproductive lives. In 1916, she opened up the first birth-control clinic in the U.S., in Brooklyn, where she helped to educate women on the female reproductive system and contraceptive methods of the day. Sanger's role in running the clinic landed her in jail (more than once) for “running a public nuisance.” She envisioned a safe, affordable “magic pill” more than 40 years before the invention of oral contraceptives.
Gregory Goodwin Pincus (April 9, 1903 – August 22, 1967)
Sanger helped support another man who has also been called the “father of the pill,” Gregory Goodwin Pincus. (Google “father of the pill,” and Pincus is the first search result.) A reproductive biologist and researcher who specialized in hormonal biology, Pincus performed the first successful case of in vitro fertilization (in rabbits) in 1936 and founded the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. Sanger met Pincus in 1951 at the home of her close associate Abraham Stone, and she went on to help him land the funding to research progesterone’s effect on ovulation—and, eventually, develop the pill, along with Worcester Foundation colleague Min Chueh Chang.
Katharine McCormick (August 27, 1875 – December 28, 1967)
Who funded Pincus and Chang’s research? Yet another parent of the pill, Katharine McCormick. Yep, the Massachusetts-based biologist—one of the first women to graduate from MIT—and suffragist was loaded, thanks to her husband being heir to the International Harvest fortune. After writing to Sanger to inquire about the best way to fund contraceptive research, she cut a $40,000 check to Pincus to bring about this “magical pill.”
So there you have it. The pill has at least two mommies and two daddies. Six if you count the other dudes who worked with Djerassi in the Mexico City lab. Seven if you count Chang. Eight if you count Frank Colton, a chemist who independently created another synthetic progestogen after Djerassi, which ended up being used in the clinical trials of the pill. And nine if you consider this adorable verse by James Duke, renowned retired USDA botanist and guitar-wielding “Duke of Herbs.”
Wild Yam, mother of the pill,
Changed us more than most herbs will.
This would make one spectacular paternity-test episode of Maury, amirite?