The birth control pill has played a key role in the sexual revolution, women’s liberation and women’s access to the work force. Prior to the introduction of oral contraceptives, women had limited and minimally effective birth control options. The pill freed both married and unmarried women from worry over unplanned pregnancy, from its introduction in the 1950s through today.
Creating an oral contraceptive required several key scientific breakthroughs in 1951 and 1952. The connection between ovulation and the hormone progesterone was discovered. Gregory Pincus, M.D., is responsible for this discovery, as tests on rats and rabbits showed the anti-ovulent properties of progesterone. John Rock, M.D., a obstetrician and gynecologist from Massachusetts, had come to a similar conclusion while working with infertility patients. Finally, Carl Djerassi, a chemist, developed a progesterone pill.
Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, first envisioned a magic pill to prevent pregnancy in 1912. She would see her vision come to fruition some 40 years later. Sanger turned her attention to the development of a birth control pill in 1951, securing funding for Pincus’ research. Her continued efforts toward funding provided critical support over the next few years. By 1954, human tests had begun. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Enovid, the first commercial birth control pill, in 1957, for the treatment of menstrual disorders. The pill was approved for sale as a contraceptive in 1960.
The earliest trials used progesterone alone to inhibit ovulation. In 1956, supplies of the test pills were contaminated with a small amount of estrogen. It quickly became clear that estrogen reduced the undesirable side effects of the pill. The earliest birth control pills used a high dose of hormones to create a reliable contraceptive.
The pill available in the early 1960s offered protection against pregnancy, but it also came with a number of difficult and unpleasant side effects. Side effects included weight gain, bloating, blurred vision, nausea, depression, blood clots and strokes. Lower dose versions of the pill were released by the pharmaceutical company marketing Enovid after the FDA approval later in the 1960s to reduce side effects.
Today’s birth control pill is not terribly different from the one developed by Gregory Pincus and John Rock. The majority of pills on the market today rely upon a combination of estrogen and progesterone to prevent pregnancy while limiting unpleasant side effects as much as possible. In the 1980s and 1990s, lower dose versions of the pill were introduced to eliminate both inconvenient and more serious side effects.