The Life of the Pill

Nancy Marie Brown
March 01, 1995

In 1925, a New Jersey woman wrote to Margaret Sanger, founder of the birth control movement:

Dear Mrs. Sanger

I received your pamplet on family limitation. . . . I am 30 years old and have been married 14 years and have 11 children the oldest 13 and the youngest one year. I have kidney and heart disease, and every one of my children is defictived and we are very poor. Now Mrs. Sanger can you please help me. I have miss a few weeks and I dont know how to bring myself around. I am so worred and I have cryed my self sick and if I dont come around I know I will go like my poor sister she went insane and died. My Doctor said I will surely go insane if I keep this up but I cant help it and the doctor wont do anything for me . . .

Bernard Asbell

It is with this letter that Bernard Asbell begins The Pill: A Biography of the Drug that Changed the World.

"I felt this need for getting to the heart of where the story begins," he explains.

"That—and being a male. It was something I was conscious of all the time I was writing," he says.

"The thing that had to be kept in mind all the way through was what an oppressive emotional subject this was for so many women for so many years."

The history of the Pill, as Asbell writes it, is less a history of chemical invention than a history of the moral, intellectual, emotional, and physical trials of women denied reproductive choice.

Author of 13 books (including the 1961 bestseller When F.D.R. Died) and some 200 magazine articles, Asbell retired from the Penn State English department in 1992. He has been called a historian; he calls himself a storyteller. He longs to be invisible, as he says, "to get the reader involved directly in the material." He wants "to inform the reader, not to see how much lightning I can draw."

He writes, he says in his vita, about "personalities, politics, education, and social change." More specifically, he says, about "how difficult and painful and full of surprises social change is.

"I try not to be a simplifier but a complexifier. . . . I get tired of journalists who always want to simplify, simplify," he says.

For Asbell, the story of the Pill does not begin with Penn State chemist Russell Marker, often called the Father of the Pill; nor with scientists Carl Djerassi, Frank Colton, Gregory Pincus, or John Rock, each of whom has borne the title.

"Contrary to widespread assumption," Asbell says, "the Pill had no Father, but two Mothers.

"Its story begins in 1950." Katharine McCormick, heiress of the McCormick Reaper fortune, wrote to Margaret Sanger of "two questions that are much with me these days: A) Where you think the greatest need of financial support is today for the National Birth Control Movement; and B) What the present prospects are for further birth control research, and by research I mean contraceptive research."

Sanger, who had coined the term "birth control" in her newspaper, Woman Rebel, in 1914; had set up the first birth-control clinic with her sister Ethel in 1916; and had gone to jail to protest laws against the distribution of contraceptive information (laws which, Asbell points out, remained on the books in Massachusetts when the Pill was in clinical trials there in 1955), replied to McCormick that the movement's greatest need was "a simple, cheap, safe contraceptive."

A few months later McCormick, on Sanger's suggestion, wrote a check for $40,000 (she was ultimately to spend $2 million) to Massachusetts endocrinologist Gregory Pincus, who, writes Asbell, was "the world's foremost authority on the female component of fertility, the mammalian egg." Pincus agreed to commit himself and his grandly named (but tiny) Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology to the two women's quest.

Asbell weaves the science into this social history by retracing, in essence, Pincus's literature search, thus giving the "Fathers" their due.

Pincus searched out Russell Marker, who in 1939 had changed a cholesterol from sarsaparilla roots into the human "pregnancy hormone," progesterone. By 1943, Marker had left Penn State for Mexico, where he had found he could synthesize much larger quantities of progesterone from a native yam; by 1949, embittered by business disputes, he had left chemistry and the hormone industry altogether. As he told Asbell, I was never interested in the use of the hormone, only in making it available. You just get curious and you want to see how the end comes out. It's like playing chess.

Marker's hormone work had been continued by Carl Djerassi in Mexico and, independently, by Frank Colton in Chicago, each of whom had created an oral progesterone pill as a cure for menstrual problems "without the faintest hint that anyone had thought of it as a contraceptive," notes Asbell.

It was Colton's version that, in 1954, Pincus and gynecologist John Rock (who had been studying progesterone pills as an aid, ironically, to fertility) chose to field-test as the Pill. These tests, and the industry intrigues behind bringing the Pill to market, fill part two of The Pill and give Asbell "a backdrop," he says, for reflecting on the state of sexual freedom in England and America before and after the Pill's introduction in 1960.

Part three concerns what Asbell calls "the study of the Pill by a surprised and unprepared church." In the sancta of the Roman Catholic Church, "the Pill attracted an attention that approached a fearsome awe—a prolonged search for its deepest meanings; for how it helped define the meaning of life itself."

Asbell concludes The Pill with a discussion of the drug's side effects, of continuing research, and of consequences: of the Age of Biointervention. "The invention of the Pill transported all of us, in a most personal sense," he writes, "into a new epoch of seeming mastery over our bodies and ourselves. It was the first product of science to alter, for our pleasure and convenience, the way the human reproductive system functions. From the story of what we have done, perhaps we may better understand what we are about to be able to do."

Throughout The Pill, Asbell confronts the science, whether of reproductive physiology or of steroid chemistry, head-on (to the extent of including a diagram of the molecular structure of a steroid hormone); yet his narrative turns on the women whose lives shaped and were shaped by the history of the Pill.

He interviewed, for example, Anne Merrill, a biologist with the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, whom he quotes concerning the field trials of the Pill in Puerto Rico in 1956: "Some of these women looked like great-grandmothers, all wizened up and gaunt. I'd look at their records and the woman would be 34, you know, with 10 children." As a counterweight, he cites Margaret Sanger, from her unpublished journal of 1914: "I love being swayed by emotions, by romances, just like a tree is rocked to and fro by various breezes—but stands firmly by its roots. . . . Those who restrain desire do so because the desire is weak enough to be restrained." Between these two extremes of the feminine existence Asbell finds his story of the Pill.

The lives of many women, in the 1960s and still today, are reflected in Asbell's account of Anne Biezanek, a Roman Catholic physician who opened a birth control clinic in Wallasey, England, in 1963. She was, writes Asbell, "in her mid-thirties, tall, handsome, blonde, keenly cerebral, intense, and whip-tongued." Raised a Quaker, she converted to Catholicism "so wholly that Thomas Aquinas himself would have taken notice and perhaps faintly raised an attentive eyebrow; so completely as to cause the foundation of St. Peter's Basilica to quiver uneasily, which indeed it soon did."

After four children and a miscarriage, and feeling dangerously overtaxed in her job as a physician at a mental hospital, "In desperation, she went to the hospital's Catholic chaplain. When he impassively repeated the 'rules,' she protested that the church's moral law had trapped her into her present fix and that something was wrong with it. . . . The chaplain told her simply that she did not understand." She consulted another priest, who assured her that, as she has written, "God would look after me."

"Before long," writes Asbell, "Dr. Anne had a fifth child, a second miscarriage, and a physical and emotional collapse." She quit her job, which had provided her family's housing, and "With her five children and husband she moved in with her willing but bewildered parents. In six months she was pregnant yet again. After her sixth birth, she committed herself to a mental hospital." She spent five weeks in therapy, returned home, and immediately became pregnant again. "Anne's non-Catholic parents found the new pregnancy so inexplicable," writes Asbell, "that she felt impelled to leave their home [and] board out her children." Through loans and charity, she found a new house, but her problems were not solved. As she wrote,

My husband had to be banished from my presence, into a room of his own. Everything in me that attracted him to me and me to him had to be suppressed. All this I attempted, and heaven is my witness. . . . Hate became the order of the day. In such an atmosphere, even prayer, or shall we rather say, above all things, prayer, becomes the most dangerous activity. When you pray, you must needs let your defenses down, you must lay yourself open to the influence of a loving and generous Spirit. The next thing would be that you find yourself betrayed into actually kissing your husband good-night . . .

Biezanek decided she would have to go on the Pill. Her parents met the news with an "explosion of relief and joy." Her husband, she told Asbell when he interviewed her in Liverpool 30 years later, thought "it was fine that I should take the Pill as long as I kept my struggles with my faith to myself."

Biezanek could not. She "went to her confessor, . . . announced she was on the Pill, and asked him to assure her that he would give her the sacraments of confession and communion. He said he could not." She then wrote to the pastor of her children's Catholic school, who allowed her to take communion by pretending not to recognize her.

Resuming her work as a physician, she soon found herself having to "dash around treating women after those filthy, criminal, induced abortions. . . . The bloodlines on the floor were terrible." She decided to open a birth-control clinic, "the first known in the world to be run by a Catholic doctor," Asbell notes. The press characterized her as a woman doctor "defying" her church, and suddenly her priest refused her communion. The bishop condemned her as "guilty of attracting publicity and causing 'scandal.'"

"Now spurred to militancy," Asbell writes, Biezanek informed the highest-ranked Catholic in England that "she would appear at his altar at Westminster Cathedral on May 31, 1964, with the intention of receiving communion. She described the style and color of the clothes she would wear, and how she looked. She also informed the press."

When the day came, she was given communion "without fuss." Later, a church spokesman said the officiators had not recognized her." Notes Asbell, "One reporter wrote that the incident 'may have been the most publicized and photographed mortal sin ever committed.'

Returning home, she said, she saw no point in trying to take communion again. She wrote a book about her experience, All Things New, "left the church, was soon left by her husband, and turned to private practice and the rearing of their children."

"Today, 30 years later," says Asbell, recalling their meeting at the Liverpool pub, "she was still kind of a wild woman. I had to keep pulling her back to the birth control issue, because she was involved in other activism—she was insisting on her medical right as a physician to prescribe cannabis, as she calls it. She's just a wonderful rule breaker, a wonderful, zesty woman."

The mother of The Pill, the book, could be said to be Jean Brenchley, professor of microbiology and biotechnology at Penn State.

In 1990, when they were both on the faculty, she and Asbell married. "That made me very personally aware," Asbell says, "of C. P. Snow's concept of the two cultures." Getting to know Brenchley's scientific colleagues, he adds, "I was surprised to discover what a different world they lived in."

He wondered if the students in his writing classes, students who "were preparing for professional careers in telling the world about itself," were aware of this parallel universe. "I asked them, 'How many of you avoid science courses on principle?' Seventeen out of 18 raised their hands.

"These are kids who can't make it to class without earphones in their ears, kids who can't do their homework without the technology of the Internet. That distressed me.

"I think that's when I began looking for a science detective story about a discovery that had made an emotional impact on people's lives."

Asbell spent nearly four years on The Pill, reading prior books on the subject; ransacking libraries (with the help of a just-graduated honors student) to find and photocopy articles from sources as diverse as Chemical and Engineering News, Catholic World, Reader's Digest, and JAMA; attending scientific conferences (in 1991 he taped a caustic conversation between Colton and Djerassi concerning the patent for the Pill); and tracking down and interviewing sources from Russell Marker to Anne Biezanek to Lady Helen Brook to Margaret Sanger's granddaughter, this last located courtesy of Penn State materials scientist Robert Newnham, who knew the proprietor of a bed-and-breakfast in Sanger's home town, a retired newspaperman who had the unpublished memoir of Sanger's niece, sent him by Sanger's granddaughter—"One of the joys of nonfiction writing," Asbell says, "is falling into these treasure chests, these potholes full of diamonds."

But, he adds, "It makes you terrified what things you haven't stumbled into."

In a 1994 article in Science, too late to count among Asbell's sources, Carl Djerassi and Mariko Jitsukawa discuss why the Pill is not legal in Japan. Among the reasons are the objections of Japanese feminists, who argue that "the Pill represses women's sexuality by forcing them into a daily medication regimen." These feminists, note Djerassi and Jitsukawa, "consider artificial regulation of the natural hormone cycle with synthetic steroids a violation of bodily ecology through modern (male) technology" and have "broadened the definition of negative side effects to include 'violation of natural rhythm.'"

There is a logic to these objections: the Pill works by tricking the female body into thinking itself already pregnant, repressing ovulation and its attendant heightened sense of desire.

Yet a reading of Asbell's book will reduce these complaints to quibbles: Without the Pill, he makes clear, many millions of women around the world would once again fear the winds of desire that Margaret Sanger so eloquently described. Without the Pill, they would become again the "poor, weak, wasted, frail women, pregnant year after year like so many automatic breeding machines" of whom Sanger wrote, the "all wizened up and gaunt" 30-somethings that Anne Merrill encountered, or the "bloodlines on the floor" that finally spurred Anne Biezanek to revolt.

The Pill: A Biography of the Drug that Changed the World will be published in April 1995 by Random House, New York. Bernard Asbell retired in 1992 as associate professor of English in the College of the Liberal Arts.

Last Updated March 01, 1995