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Gregory Pincus (1903-67)

Gregory Pincus was an American biologist and researcher. He spent much of his career studying hormones and animal physiology, but is best known for developing the oral contraceptive known as ‘the pill’. Pincus’s work in reproductive biology attracted the attention of leading birth control campaigner Margaret Sanger. Both were convinced a new form of contraceptive was possible, and Sanger secured funding for the key investigations that led to the discovery.

Pincus’s research courted controversy as early as the 1930s, when he achieved in vitro fertilisation (IVF) of rabbit eggs within a test tube. In public he was portrayed as the stereotypical ‘mad scientist’ messing with nature, and much of the scientific community shunned him. As a result he was denied work at leading research institutions and relied on private funding, such as that provided by Sanger, for years.

Pincus led a team of scientists from the early 1950s. They attempted to identify a synthetic hormone-based substance which could mimic the condition of pregnancy and thereby prevent real conception. Pincus’s main collaborators were biologist Min-Chueh Chang and physician John Rock. They also relied heavily on the earlier work of chemist Carl Djerassi. Extensive human testing of Enovid - a synthetic hormone compound already prescribed for other conditions - followed. In 1960 it became the first oral contraceptive approved for marketing in the United States.

Bibliography

G Pincus, The Control of Fertility (New York; London: Academic Press, 1965)

L Marks, Sexual Chemistry: A History of the Contraceptive Pill (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2001)

E Watkins, On the Pill: A Social History of Oral Contraceptives, 1950-1970 (Baltimore; London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998)

L Speroff, A Good Man: Gregory Goodwin Pincus: The Man, His Story, the Birth Control Pill (Arnica Publishing, 2009)

Glossary:

Hormone

A substance produced in one part of the body which passes into the bloodstream and is then carried to other (distant) organs or tissues, where it acts to modify their structure or function

Conception

The successful formation of a fertilised cell (zygote) by the union of the female ovum and the male sperm.