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The birth of the pill : how four pioneers…

The birth of the pill : how four pioneers reinvented sex and launched a… (edition 2016)

by Jonathan Eig

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179794,314 (3.88)12
Title:The birth of the pill : how four pioneers reinvented sex and launched a revolution
Authors:Jonathan Eig
Info:London : Pan Books, 2016.
Collections:Read but unowned
Tags:U.S.A., medicine, lifestyle, history

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The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig



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Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
I want to give this 4.5 stars, but it got knocked to 4, this is an excellent history of The Pill, and just how much work, energy, and love went into its research and production. I would have given it 5 stars, but it was a very slow read for me, I think it could have benefited from maybe more anecdotes or something to move the story along a little more, but that may just be personal preference, rather than a reflection on the writing. I do think it lacks a little in the exploration on the work we have yet to do, especially on effectiveness in women weighing more than 190 lbs. From my research, it seems to cause health problems in heavier women, and has a 20+% higher chance of failure, and these risks are usually NOT mentioned unless you explicitly look for them. (Excuse me, slight tangent, still an excellent book). ( )
  Pepperwings | Jun 17, 2017 |
Major players: Margaret Sanger (activist with a mission/vision), Gregory Goodman Pincus (scientist/researcher), Katharine McCormick (passion and funding), and John Rock (scientist/doctor, Catholic, spokesperson)

Surprising: (1) how relatively little testing, especially long-term testing, was done beforehand (FDA approval based on effectiveness, not safety) and little concern about side effects; (2) different approaches, from Sanger's sexual revolution to population control (and eugenics); (3) relationship with (and relative lack of support from) Planned Parenthood, the organization Sanger started.


Science would do what the law so far had not; it would give women the chance to become equal partners with men. This was the technology Sanger had been seeking all her life. (6)

In the 1920s, the state health department of New York distributed circulars warning women that pregnancies occurring too close together were dangerous, predisposing mothers to tuberculosis. But the same department barred women from receiving information about how to prevent pregnancy. Doctors estimated that one-third of all pregnancies in the United States at the time ended in abortion. (35)

Men still dominated most of society, but women were wresting away control of the home and, increasingly, of sex. As women asserted more power in the bedroom, they extended their influence outside of their homes as well. (37)

...Sanger was consistent in her core beliefs. She held that women had the right to self-determination, that every child should be loved and cared for, and that women were entitled to enjoy sex as much as men. (53)

Sanger was claiming the right for women "to experience their sexuality free of consequence just as men have always done"...in her day, that was radical. (55)

"A world where women could be self-sufficient; a man's value precisely zero." (Collier's magazine, March 20, 1937)

"Religion is a very poor scientist." (John Rock, 105)

Menstruation...is only necessary when women are interested in getting pregnant. (119)

[The FDA] looked carefully to see if drugs were effective...but less carefully at whether the drugs were safe. (262)

In 1958, seventeen states still had laws banning the sale, distribution, or advertisement of contraception. (276)

[Women] were beginning to understand that they didn't need to have seven or eight children and that once they controlled the timing of childbirth, they might begin to control all sorts of other things. (306)

One gynecologist said he prescribed the pills "without qualms"...noting, "I would rather be asked for the pills than for an abortion." (314)

[The] pill has been more popular and had far greater impact among the affluent than the poor and has been far more widely used in developed countries than in developing ones. (re: population control, 318) ( )
1 vote JennyArch | Mar 30, 2017 |
Needed a bit more editing, but interesting none the less! ( )
  kemilyh1988 | Jan 16, 2017 |
Later generations would complain that the birth-control pill put the burden for contraception on women, but that's not the way these women saw it. Sanger and McCormick were born in the nineteenth century. To them, an oral contraceptive wasn't a burden for women. It was a tool. It was an opportunity. [236]

The black women from the Deep South, the immigrant women, and the college women considering careers outside the home had something in common: they recognized that the pursuit of opportunity required independence, and achieving that independence meant avoiding -- or at least postponing -- motherhood. [220]

The Birth Of The Pill, that is: the realization that humans have a capacity for managing reproduction at the level of individuals, and not merely as a population, this is a story eminently worth telling, though I think Eig's effort is journeyman at best. There is in his narrative too much of the outlook of a crusade, with the implication we should be in awe of these four crusaders and their individual accomplishments. It is not so much that this interpretation is false or inaccurate, as that I think the more significant conclusion to draw is that it took so long for birth control to be pursued scientifically, that it almost didn't happen, and when it did it was not our culture or civilisation which nurtured this goal. No, it was a crusade undertaken by individuals who in many respects had to defy culture and civilisation in order to be succesful. They were opposed by the greater principles of our civilization, and the concerted efforts of our leaders and counsellors.

I recognise that, to reach this conclusion, I had first to hear Eig's story, and for Eig to tell that story, the crusaders had first to overcome. So I return to my opening admission: it is a story worth telling, yes, but also an indictment of modern life, its ideals and understanding of itself, and that story is also eminently worth telling but was not told here.


The 4 crusaders of the subtitle:
1 - Margaret Sanger, birth control advocate & women's rights activist, founder of Planned Parenthood
2 - Gregory Pincus, biological bench researcher
3 - Katharine McCormick, heiress to Intl Harvester fortune, scientist, funding research into hormonal basis of mental health
4 - John Rock, Catholic family doctor and fertility researcher

This list omits Dr Edris Rice-Wray, physician in Puerto Rico and crucial organizer of medical trials and social activist. It also ignores Eig's hints at an activist in Japan who potentially was as influential there as these four were in North America. The list also omits the FDA reviewer who, diligent in face of pressure, provided a layer of protection to those taking the pill, given how against protocol and ethics some of the research was which resulted in the Pill. These additional people (each discussed by Eig, just not counted among the titular crusaders) underscore how much of an individual accomplishment this story was: had any of these people not performed their role, the entire thing very well may have failed. There was not much redundancy in this process, we are fortunate it came off at all.

The story which was not told could perhaps come at the question of birth control from the perspective of Planned Parenthood, Population Control, eugenics, the pharmacological industry. A parallel story, not of individuals but of social contexts, not of change but of resistance. Eig provides enough on all of these for the reader to recognise, the full story is not merely of four crusaders. ( )
1 vote elenchus | Aug 8, 2016 |
The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched Revolution ( )
  Calavari | Jun 7, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393073726, Hardcover)

The story of the people whose dramatic scientific breakthrough was so universal that it’s known simply as “the pill.”

The birth-control pill has been called the most important invention of the twentieth century. Yet its creation was anything but certain. This is the story of the eclectic group who created the pill against overwhelming odds: Gregory Pincus, the young scientist who was fired from Harvard University and forced to launch his own lab in a garage; Margaret Sanger, the radical feminist whose beliefs about sex frightened the old guard; Katharine McCormick, the philanthropist with a troubled past who bankrolled the research; and John Rock, the Catholic doctor with movie-star looks who battled his own church to win public support. Their story is told here with remarkable detail and narrative force by one of America’s foremost popular historians. Jonathan Eig delivers both a gripping scientific suspense story and a powerful social and cultural history. 8 pages of illustrations

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:48 -0400)

Immersed in radical feminist politics, scientific ingenuity, establishment opposition, and, ultimately, a sea change in social attitudes, this is the fascinating story of one of the most important scientific discoveries of the twentieth century.

(summary from another edition)

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