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Timely subject; New book about birth of 'the pill' tells the backstory.

Byline: Lisa Eckelbecker

Seated at a holiday service at a synagogue about a decade ago, author Jonathan Eig heard his rabbi describe the birth control pill as the most important invention of the 20th century.

His reaction? The most polite way to say it is, "no.''

In fact, he later learned, he'd misheard his rabbi, who considered the development of an oral contraceptive for women as just one of the most important inventions of the century. Yet it was a slip that inspired Mr. Eig to dig into history and biology, visit an abandoned laboratory building in Shrewsbury and write a new book about the work that led to what is now known simply as "the pill.''

"The Birth of the Pill, How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution,'' traces the efforts of biologist Gregory Pincus, Boston physician Dr. John Rock, heiress and activist Katharine McCormick and the woman who launched what would become Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, as they maneuvered during the 1950s to create a pill that would give women control over their reproduction.

The world has come to take the pill for granted, Mr. Eig said in an interview, and it shouldn't.

"We take it for granted, the fact that women can go to college, and postpone having children and start their careers, and start having families in their 30s if they want to,'' Mr. Eig said. "So much has changed, and I think that often we forget that the pill was not inevitable. It required some really gutsy and brilliant work by some crusaders who were not part of the establishment and had to take huge risks to do this.''

Millions of women have taken the birth control pill since its approval in 1960. As of 2010, according to statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, about 10.5 million women in the United States were on the pill, making it the most popular form of birth control among women of child-bearing age.

The general story of the birth control pill is well known in Worcester. Gregory Goodwin Pincus, an expert in the reproduction of mammals, was denied tenure at Harvard University in 1937 and decamped for Clark University in Worcester, where his friend Hudson Hoagland was running the biology department.

In 1944, the men raised money from Worcester businesses and individuals to found the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology. It was an independent research institution that started out in space at Worcester State Hospital, an asylum for the mentally ill, and later settled into a 12-acre property in Shrewsbury.

After Mrs. Sanger met Mr. Pincus at a Manhattan party in 1950 and described her dream for an oral contraceptive, Mr. Pincus returned to Shrewsbury and set to work with researcher Min-Chueh Chang. Funding from Mrs. McCormick, one of the first women to graduate with a science degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sustained the work, and Dr. Rock tested the pill on his patients.

In 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved a combination estrogen-progestin pill called Enovid as an oral contraceptive.

Yet that is just the starting point for Mr. Eig, a New York Times best-selling writer from Chicago who formerly worked for The Wall Street Journal and has written books about gangster Al Capone and baseball player Jackie Robinson.

Mr. Eig sets the pill's development against the changing sexual attitudes of the mid-20th century and rising concerns about runaway population growth. He also fleshes out the hazards of working on birth control, which was illegal in Massachusetts and many other states, and the quirks of "Goody'' Pincus, describing him as a confident man with little interest in capitalizing on his work.

It's a view shared by Laura Pincus Bernard of Boston, daughter of Mr. Pincus.

"He didn't care about money, he cared about the work,'' she said, after an event for Mr. Eig's book in Boston. "He was a very warm, very charming, very affectionate person. That's why he was an effective fundraiser.''

Mr. Eig also illustrates the tactics that enabled the pill's development, including testing a compound on mentally ill patients at Worcester State Hospital. During trials in Puerto Rico, according to Mr. Eig's book, poor women from slums who were desperate to avoid pregnancy were enlisted and sometimes endured dizziness, nausea, headaches, vomiting, abdominal pain or other side effects.

"The Birth of the Pill'' arrives at a time when sexuality and birth control remain the subject of examination and debate, both in art and law. The Showtime television drama "Masters of Sex'' focuses on 1950s pioneering sex researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled that privately held companies that offer health insurance to workers can opt out of Affordable Care Act requirements to cover certain kinds of contraception because of religious beliefs.

The pill continues to fascinate partly because people like to read about sex, and partly because contraception is a hot subject, said Nina Kushner, an associate professor of history at Clark University who teaches a course in the history of sexuality.

"It's something that we're really thinking about all the time now,'' she said. "In the public imagination, (the pill) it's a breakthrough moment where sex became a legitimate topic for study, where women's sexuality became something that's important, that should be respected.''

In Central Massachusetts, the work of Mr. Pincus and others at the Worcester Foundation enjoyed early support from many individuals and organizations. Dr. Leonard J. Morse, Worcester's former commissioner of public health, said that when a patient once gave him a gift of money, he turned it over to the foundation.

"I said that that's where it belonged, and if there was any opportunity for me to do anything with it as time progressed in the betterment of the public's health, I'd be able to use it, but if not, I wanted it to be used in the operations of the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology,'' Dr. Morse said.

Yet even as the pill became a blockbuster drug Co 400,000 U.S. women got prescriptions for it the first year it came out Co no rewards flowed to the Worcester Foundation. Mr. Pincus never pursued a patent for the work, Mr. Eig wrote. The foundation changed its name to the Worcester Foundation for Biomedical Research in 1995 and was absorbed into the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1997.

"Goody, for all his brilliance, was not a brilliant businessman,'' Mr. Eig said. "It wasn't his priority. He was interested in the science, and he wanted to get the science done. People told him on the business side of the foundation that you need to plan for the future, you need to create an endowment, we shouldn't be spending every dollar that comes in on research. And he just wanted to plow ahead on the research, so much that he didn't really focus on building something that would last for 100 years.''

Contact Lisa Eckelbecker at Follow her on Twitter @LisaEckelbecker.
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Title Annotation:Local
Author:Eckelbecker, Lisa
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Oct 27, 2014
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