A Chicago Tribune "Best Books of 2014" • A Slate "Best Books 2014: Staff Picks" • A St. Louis Post-Dispatch "Best Books of 2014"
The fascinating story of one of the most important scientific discoveries of the twentieth century.
We know it simply as "the pill," yet its genesis was anything but simple. Jonathan Eig's masterful narrative revolves around four principal characters: the fiery feminist Margaret Sanger, who was a champion of birth control in her campaign for the rights of women but neglected her own children in pursuit of free love; the beautiful Katharine McCormick, who owed her fortune to her wealthy husband, the son of the founder of International Harvester and a schizophrenic; the visionary scientist Gregory Pincus, who was dismissed by Harvard in the 1930s as a result of his experimentation with in vitro fertilization but who, after he was approached by Sanger and McCormick, grew obsessed with the idea of inventing a drug that could stop ovulation; and the telegenic John Rock, a Catholic doctor from Boston who battled his own church to become an enormously effective advocate in the effort to win public approval for the drug that would be marketed by Searle as Enovid.
Spanning the years from Sanger’s heady Greenwich Village days in the early twentieth century to trial tests in Puerto Rico in the 1950s to the cusp of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, this is a grand story of radical feminist politics, scientific ingenuity, establishment opposition, and, ultimately, a sea change in social attitudes. Brilliantly researched and briskly written, The Birth of the Pill is gripping social, cultural, and scientific history.
Former Wall Street Journal reporter Eig (Luckiest Man) blends the story of the "only product in American history so powerful that it needed no name" with the lives of the four-larger-than-life characters who dreamed, funded, researched, and tested it. Eig recapitulates much of what's known about the discovery of oral contraceptives and adds a wealth of unfamiliar material. He frames his story around the brilliant Gregory Pincus, who was let go by Harvard after his controversial work on in-vitro fertilization; charismatic Catholic fertility doctor John Rock, who developed a treatment that blocked ovulation and, with Pincus, began human testing (including on nonconsenting asylum patients); and the two fearless women who paid for and supported their work, rebellious women's rights crusader and Planned Parenthood pioneer Margaret Sanger and her intellectual heiress, Katharine Dexter McCormick. The twists and turns of producing a birth control pill in the mid-20th century mirrored astonishing changes in the cultural landscapes: Eig notes how, in July 1959, the publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover and G.D. Searle's request for FDA approval of Enovid presaged a "tidal wave that would sweep away the nation's culture of restraint." Eig's fascinating narrative of medical innovation paired so perfectly with social revolution befits a remarkable chapter of human history.