The hazardous life of a concept: birth control

09th Dec 2016, BUSINESS STANDARD R. Gopalakrishnan, Author and Corporate Advisor, In my last column, I had likened the fertilization of a concept in the brain to the development of a foetus in the womb.


R. Gopalakrishnan, Author and Corporate Advisor,

In my last column, I had likened the fertilization of a concept in the brain to the development of a foetus in the womb. In this piece I trace how a concept develops into an articulated idea over time through the example of birth control. That is why I use the metaphor of the ‘life of a concept’.

Mammals usually mate with a clear goal of reproduction. They do not mate for pleasure so far as we humans know. We homo-sapiens mate for pleasure and not necessarily for reproduction. Hence the quest for birth control is very old among humans; we have toyed with the concept from as early as Egyptian and Vedic times. Until the twentieth century, the concept was around physically preventing fertilization of egg and sperm through use of materials as diaphragms. Public discussion about sex and its practice were taboo because social attitudes and religious beliefs discouraged openness.

That was so for centuries. Coincidentally, at about the time I was born, the subject of sex burst forth into the open and the concept of birth control developed into a chemical solution rather than the only known physical solution of blocking fertilization.

In 1937 three professors in the University of Pennsylvania discovered a ‘chemical switch’ during their scientific work with female rabbits. They published a paper which stated that if a hormone called progesterone is introduced into the female body, the female would actually stop producing eggs. And without producing her egg, she could not become pregnant! Bingo, it was that simple.

A revolutionary social idea developed simultaneously when a college professor in Indiana, Alfred Charles Kinsey, published his research findings that human beings, both male and female, were “friskier” than they cared to admit. A graduate student at North-western University, Hugh Hefner, read the Kinsey findings and set out to rid America of the darkness and taboos concerning sex. Hefner went on to found Playboy magazine. This combination of chemistry and sociology set the ground to completely change ideas regarding human birth control.

From 1937 when the progesterone concept was fertilized in the brain of scientists, through the 1950s when the concept was manifested as a pill idea, and finally in the 1960s, the world approved the first contraceptive pill for marketing. This sequence illustrates the very well the metaphorical stages of conception, birth and innovation.

Other events around the 1940s and 1950s also shaped and influenced the crystallization of ideas. A feisty American lady, Margaret Sanger, had for a few decades been promoting a birth control by starting the first birth control clinic in 1916. She wanted to liberate women from the uncontrolled cycle of unwanted pregnancy by popularizing safer and more reliable methods of birth control rather than clumsy diaphragms and time-related abstinence from sex. She wanted the thirty States in America to remove their anti-birth control laws so that innovation in birth control would be encouraged. Margaret Sanger was considered dangerous by society which was fearful of the consequences just in case she became successful in liberating women. What would happen? Family? Marriage? Moral standards?

On a cold winter in 1950, sitting in her Park Avenue apartment, Margaret Sanger met one Dr. Gregory Pincus, an out-of-the-box-thinking scientist, and made her pitch to him. Pincus had already earned the reputation of being a Frankenstein-like scientist due to his experiments with fertilization of rabbits. Sanger asked Pincus to make a pill that a woman could consume as easily as any medicine or brushing her teeth. If so a woman could lead an enjoyable life without worrying about pregnancy. The brain of Pincus had already developed the chemistry concept into an idea, but he had to experiment and demonstrate what he had thought up. In short, Pincus was a solution looking for a problem. Of course, it is possible, he said. He needed $ 3100 to engage an assistant and buy some materials. She could offer him $ 2000.

Unbeknownst to both Margaret Sanger and Gregory Pincus, in Mexico, another scientist, Carl Djerassi, had already synthesized a hormone pill from wild yams (sic!). This pill could prevent ovulation in women. By 1960, the US FDA approved Enovid, a contraceptive pill released by GD Searle and Company.

Time magazine reported in 1966, “No previous medical phenomenon has ever quite matched the headlong US rush to use oral contraceptives, now universally known as the pill”. The concept of birth control has had a hazardous biography over centuries, but the pill has elegantly (and controversially) emerged as a new idea in birth control, arguably qualifying as one of the biggest innovations in human history.