New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Eig discussed his new book “The Birth of the Pill” at Harvard Medical School Tuesday evening, tracing the contributions of four eccentric characters in creating the “miracle tablet” and sharing his insights into the political, medical, and ethical revolution that the birth control pill incited in America and across the globe.
Having written biographies on Al Capone, Jackie Robinson, and Lou Gehrig, Eig veered into a different direction for his fourth book and found inspiration in a sermon his rabbi gave 12 years ago.
“I don’t necessarily think of myself as just a biographer or just a writer of sports stories or anything. I just look for the best story I can find,” he said before the book talk.
At the sermon, Eig said that he heard “the birth control pill was one of the most important inventions of the 20th century.” Though skeptical at first, Eig said he pondered this statement and was struck by its veracity after some research.
“I really began to appreciate the huge impact it made on all of our lives. And then it occurred to me, if it’s so important, why don’t I know anything about where it came from?” Eig said.
The author’s curiosity motivated him to delve into the seemingly impossible feat that four of the “miracle pill” pioneers accomplished in the sixties.
Eig shared the story of female rights activist Margaret Sanger, who advocated for contraceptives and sex for pleasure’s sake among other ideas in the 1950’s. According to Eig, Sanger sought a “miracle tablet that would allow women to turn on and off their reproductive systems."
Alongside Sanger in the suffrage movement was Katherine McCormick, a wealthy MIT graduate who introduced Sanger to Dr. Gregory G. Pincus. Known to many as “Dr. Frankenstein,” Pincus quickly developed a method for preventing ovulation with progesterone—an effort motivated by Sanger’s quest and funded by the wealthy McCormick.
While Eig said that Pincus’s discovery was promising, the ban on contraceptives in 30 states prevented the researcher from recruiting a sufficient number of subjects to test his creation. A gynecologist at Harvard named John Rock was convinced by the importance of the pill and joined Pincus in appealing to women for study.
According to Eig, it was by indirect means, outright lies, and intimidation that the two researchers succeeded in testing the efficacy of the progesterone injection in Puerto Rico and an insane asylum in Massachusetts. Still, he emphasized the crucial role that the pill has played in giving women corporeal autonomy.
“I hope [my readers] realize that the world was very different before birth control, and its impact has been enormously positive and it’s something we still have to fight for,” Eig said. “You can’t let people take away those rights and you can’t let people forget that women have the right to have control over their own bodies.”
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