Science and social history, book review: Jonathan Eig, The Birth of The Pill

It’s rare that I manage to read a book in 72 hours these days, such are the competing demands of my many jobs. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in science and its impact on social history. It’s a pacy book, with chapters that seamlessly alternate between the scientific and social considerations of the quest for reliable contraception.

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The pill is one of the world’s most successful pharmaceuticals, swallowed by millions of women everyday and taken by most women at some point in their lives. Before I read the book I knew a fair amount about the biology and chemistry of the pill, gleaned from undergraduate pharmaceutical chemistry lectures and patient information leaflets. I knew nothing about the who, why and where of its development. I certainly had no idea that the catalyst for its development was a rich woman in her 70s who felt women would never make progress in the world until they could control their own reproductive destinies.

Several other characters were key to the Pill’s development but I won’t spoil the plot for it’s a gripping story to discover for yourself. Needless to say the regulatory environment of the time was very different and who knows if the tests carried out in the research phase would have resulted in a marketable product if the Pill were being developed now. The main scientist, Goody Pincus was a charming maverick who had been sidelined from research at Harvard, eventually setting up his own private institute for the study of reproductive biology on a shoestring. The field trials were unethical to say the least, medical students enrolled in order to gain course credit, lunatics who could not consent and the slum dwelling women of Puerto Rico all feature in the story.

Just as interesting as the scientific work is the social context. It is easy to forget the power and influence of the church in conservative America in the 1950s. I had always wondered why the term ‘birth control’ was used in America compared to the more clinical term ‘contraception’ used in the UK and Europe and this is covered here. The backgrounds of the key players in the story are also fascinating, two rich elderly women who liked sex, one whose late husband was a lunatic, a poor but brilliant scientist and a handsome, suave Catholic doctor seem to have been brought together in a story written for a Hollywood script.

Whilst the pill has not been without its problems it is safe to say it has transformed the lives of women across the world, freeing them from the constraints of unplanned pregnancy and early marriage. This book is a gripping read, accessible to the scientist and non-scientist alike, I thoroughly recommend it.

 

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