Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Sexual Chemistry

Sexual Chemistry: A History of the Contraceptive Pill

Lara V. Marks
Copyright Date: 2001
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Sexual Chemistry
    Book Description:

    Heralded as the catalyst of the sexual revolution and the solution to global overpopulation, the contraceptive pill was one of the twentieth century's most important inventions. It has not only transformed the lives of millions of women but has also pushed the limits of drug monitoring and regulation across the world. This deeply-researched new history of the oral contraceptive shows how its development and use have raised crucial questions about the relationship between science, medicine, technology, and society.

    Lara Marks traces the scientific origins of the pill to Europe and Mexico in the early years of the twentieth century, challenging previous accounts that championed it as a North American product. She explores the reasons why the pill took so long to be developed and explains why it did not prove to be the social panacea envisioned by its inventors. Unacceptable to the Catholic Church, rejected by countries such as India and Japan, too expensive for women in poor countries, it has, more recently, been linked to cardiovascular problems. Reviewing the positive effects of the pill, Marks shows how it has been transformed from a tool for the prevention of conception to a major weapon in the fight against cancer.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18011-4
    Subjects: Health Sciences

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations, Figures, Tables
    (pp. vi-viii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Preface to the Paperback Edition
    (pp. xiii-xxxii)
  6. Introduction: ‘A Whole New Bag of Beans’
    (pp. 1-12)

    The contraceptive pill of today is not the same as it was yesterday, neither will it be the same in the future. Today the pill comes in all sorts of colours, including white, yellow, pink, peach, mauve, strawberry-rose, red and blue. Round or pentagonal in shape, these pills are attractively packaged in foil blister packs with arrows and instructions elaborately designed to aid the memory of those taking the contraceptive, and to warn them of its possible hazards. Such pills could not be more of a contrast to the first oral contraceptive marketed in 1960, which came as a little...

  7. 1 The Population Problem and the Pill
    (pp. 13-40)

    In 1950, five years after the Second World War, Margaret Sanger, leader of the American birth control movement and chief promoter of the development of the oral contraceptive, forecast ‘that the world and almost all our civilization for the next twenty-five years is going to depend upon a simple, cheap, safe contraceptive to be used in poverty-stricken slums and jungles, and among the most ignorant people’.¹ Echoing this view four years later, the Catholic obstetrician-gynaecologist John Rock, who ran some of the early clinical trials of the first oral contraceptive, declared that such a pill would be the leading weapon...

  8. 2 The Contraceptive Challenge: The Search for a Pill
    (pp. 41-59)

    As early as 1921 an Austrian physiologist, Ludwig Haberlandt (1885-1932), announced that it was possible to create a hormonal contraceptive pill.¹ The idea of an oral contraceptive was not new. From the time of Hippocrates, various preparations derived from the crocus, the laurel, nettle seeds, peony roots and other mineral sources had been suggested for contraception. What was new about Haberlandt’s proposal was that the oral contraceptive could be made from hormones.³ Such a suggestion represented a radical departure from the kinds of contraceptives then available. Up to that time, most couples had relied on rudimentary forms of contraception such...

  9. 3 Sexual Chemistry
    (pp. 60-88)

    In accepting the challenge of Margaret Sanger and Katherine McCormick to develop a contraceptive pill, Gregory Pincus like his predecessors needed to find a compound that would be cheap and effective. The interwar years had witnessed a significant growth in the number of compounds and hormones available for research. Many of the hormones available at this time, however, were very expensive and largely ineffective unless administered in very large doses. This remained a major stumbling block to the development of an oral contraceptive. By the early 1950s, however, when Pincus began to look for a suitable compound to develop a...

  10. 4 Human Guinea Pigs?
    (pp. 89-115)

    When Gregory Pincus decided to meet the challenge of finding a hormonal contraceptive he entered unknown territory. Although chemists had begun to synthesize a number of compounds which appeared to have contraceptive qualities from the early 19508, no one knew what effects these chemicals might have on the human body and whether they would cause adverse reactions. The only way to find out was to test the pill on women themselves. This task was not going to be easy, however; it would require the aid not only of numerous scientists, but also of physicians, and the cooperation of hundreds of...

  11. 5 Doctors and the Pill
    (pp. 116-137)

    Shortly after the first oral contraceptive was officially marketed in Britain in 1961, a general practitioner, practising in a remote rural part of Norfolk, had his lunchtime drink interrupted by medical colleagues. They had come to protest about his prescription of oral contraceptives. Outraged, they saw his action as ‘totally unethical’ and ‘undermining the reputation of the medical practice in the neighbourhood as well as the morals of the public at large’.¹ Their complaint was not an isolated event. Indeed, many doctors in the early 1960s were opposed to prescribing the pill. One British doctor, Dr J. W. Dignan, summed...

  12. 6 Handling Health Concerns of the Pill: Thrombosis
    (pp. 138-157)

    In November 1961 a British family doctor from Suffolk wrote to theLancetof a disturbing case he had seen of a woman who had developed thrombotic (blood-clot) complications after taking the first marketed oral contraceptive pill. Prescribed the pill for recurrent endometriosis, the woman had experienced nausea and intense vomiting. Three days after she stopped taking the drug the woman appeared to return to normal health, but ten days later she developed a blood clot in her lungs (pulmonary embolism).¹ She returned to normal health after three months, but was the first of many such cases to be reported...

  13. 7 The Pill and the Riddle of Cancer
    (pp. 158-182)

    While few suspected the pill’s potential to cause thrombotic complications, from the time of its development many had feared it might promote cancer.¹ Investigators running the early clinical trials of the drug were themselves concerned about the problem of conducting regular vaginal and cervical smears, as well as endometrial biopsies and breast examinations. The level of anxiety about the relationship between hormones and cancer can also be seen from the fact that, just before approving the pill, the American Food and Drug Administration had stopped feeding chickens with oestrogens to fatten them because of the potential carcinogenic effects.² While such...

  14. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  15. 8 ‘A Dream Come True’: The Reception of the Pill
    (pp. 183-215)

    In 1922 Margaret Sanger wrote, ‘No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body … It is for women the key to liberty.’¹ This belief had been the driving force in Sanger’s search for a contraceptive pill. From her perspective the contraceptive pill represented the means for women to free themselves from the continual burden of reproduction. She was not alone: in 1928, the British birth control campaigner Marie Stopes commented that ‘the demand for a simple pill or drug’ for contraception was ‘astonishingly widespread’.² A woman who joined one of the first clinical...

  16. 9 Divisive Device: The Pill and the Catholic Church
    (pp. 216-236)

    In 1968 Pope Paul VI astonished the world when he reaffirmed in his encyclicalHumanae Vitae(Of Human Life) the old Catholic doctrine that the use of artificial contraception was forbidden. He made it clear that any use of the pill for contraception would be regarded as immoral and against the will of God. As he stated it, ‘The moment has not come for man to entrust to his reason and his will, rather than to the biological rhythms of his organism, the task of regulating birth.’¹ The encyclical came after years of earnest debate about marriage and contraception within...

  17. 10 Panacea or Poisoned Chalice?
    (pp. 237-265)

    ‘Not since the sulfa tablets emerged in the 1930’s to conquer pneumonia and a host of other infections, has a little tablet exerted such far-reaching influence upon the world’s people. It may, in fact be the most popular pill since aspirin. It is certainly relieving bigger headaches – both family and global.’¹ These words, written by an American journalist just six years after the pill had been released in the United States, underline the revolutionary qualities contemporaries attributed to the pill within a short time of its appearance. Not everyone, however, viewed the pill in such a positive light. Indeed,...

  18. Bibliographical Abbreviations
    (pp. 266-267)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 268-333)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 334-359)
  21. Index
    (pp. 360-372)