The pill

1944-1960 The pill

The book of science

Tom Sharp

Russell Earl Marker, George Rosenkranz, Carl Djerassi, Luis E. Miramontes, Frank B. Colton, Margaret Sanger, Katharine McCormick, Gregory Pincus, Min Chueh Chang, John Rock sociology pharmacology The pill

The pill

Russell Earl Marker found he could synthesize progesterone, precursor of the human body’s steroids and sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, from inedible Mexican yams. Previously, European pharmaceutical companies synthesized progesterone from bile acids of animals, which was expensive. From progesterone, chemists were able to derive cortezone and the pill.

Social engineering

At Syntex George Rosenkranz, Carl Djerassi, and Luis E. Miramontes synthesized norethisdrone from progesterone, and at Searle Frank B. Colton synthesized norethynodrel and norethandrolone. Norethisdrone, norethynodrel, and norethandrolone are progestins that can be taken orally. Progestins are hormones that suppress ovulation. Norethynodrel and mestranol (an estrogen) were to be included in the first approved oral contraceptive. Meanwhile, Margaret Sanger, who helped start the birth control movement, had gotten a grant for Gregory Pincus and Min Chueh Chang who were injecting rabbits with progesterone to prevent ovulation. When their funding gave out, Sanger got her friend Katharine McCormick involved. McCormick and Pincus enlisted John Rock, who was trying to treat women with infertility using hormonal therapy, to lead clinical research with women. Analysis of clinical trials resulted in adjustments in dosage and increasing the amount of mestranol, an intermediate product of the synthesis that was first considered a contaminant. In the U.S., the FDA approved the first oral contraceptive in 1960. The next year, it was approved for use in Austria and Germany, and in Britain where clinical trials had been done. It was legalized in France in December 1967, Time magazine put it on its cover in April 1967, and the Catholic Church has not approved of it.


A woman who wants control over whether she should get pregnant. A couple bound together by love not by a desire to have children. Sex before marriage. Same sex couples.

Aside from being the entry giving the most people credit, this entry is the first in this book where I give credit for the science to people who didn’t act as scientists or inventors, except that I could argue that Sanger and McCormick acted as social scientists, or at least as social engineers. Therefore, this is the first entry under the science of sociology (as well as being filed under biology, medicine, pharmacology, and metabolism).

See also in The book of science:

Readings on wikipedia: