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The Invention that Changed Everything

We know it simply as "the pill," yet its genesis was anything but simple. Jonathan Eig's masterful narrative revolves around four principal characters: the fiery feminist Margaret Sanger, who was a champion of birth control in her campaign for the rights of women but neglected her own children in pursuit of free love; the beautiful Katharine McCormick, who owed her fortune to her wealthy husband, the son of the founder of International Harvester and a schizophrenic; the visionary scientist Gregory Pincus, who was dismissed by Harvard in the 1930s as a result of his experimentation with in vitro fertilization but who, after he was approached by Sanger and McCormick, grew obsessed with the idea of inventing a drug that could stop ovulation; and the telegenic John Rock, a Catholic doctor from Boston who battled his own church to become an enormously effective advocate in the effort to win public approval for the drug that would be marketed by Searle as Enovid.

Spanning the years from Sanger’s heady Greenwich Village days in the early twentieth century to trial tests in Puerto Rico in the 1950s to the cusp of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, this is a grand story of radical feminist politics, scientific ingenuity, establishment opposition, and, ultimately, a sea change in social attitudes. Brilliantly researched and briskly written, The Birth of the Pill is gripping social, cultural, and scientific history.


"Suspense-filled and beautifully irresistible tale.... Eig is a master storyteller."

Ken Burns

Why the Pill?

Write a book about women, said my wife.

Yeah, said my daughters. in unison.

This is it. A book about one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs known to mankind...or, better yet, make that humankind. The story began for me with a question: If the pill was so important, why don't we know who invented it? And how the hell did it happen at a time when birth control was illegal, when men controlled virtually all of government, industry, and academia? Who made this happen and how?


The story I found shocked me. The pill was the product of four brave visionaries: the fiery radical Margaret Sanger; the beautiful benefactress Katharine McCormick; the visionary biologist Gregory Pincus; and the handsome Catholic doctor John Rock. These four risked everything, knowing that the odds were stacked against them. As I wrote: "Science would do the law so far had not; it would give women the chance to become equal partners with men." It would, in effect, launch a revolution.


Of course, the four protagonists of this book were not the only heroes. The women who subjected themselves to these experiments, often without consent, also made this vision possible. The women who learned about this pill before it had FDA approval and began demanding it from their doctors were heroes, too. 

The birth of the pill was messy. It was miraculous. It could never happen again. But it reminds us of the determination women felt to gain control of their own bodies, and it should remind us that we can never let that right be taken away again.

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