This is the fourth in a series of profiles of the people who have most influenced thinking about population over the past century. The profiles bring you the insights of today’s population specialists on the contributions of their predecessors and contemporaries.
Gregory Goodwin “Goody” Pincus was Dr. Pincus because of his Harvard Ph.D. in biology, not because of a medical degree. Yet his work may have been the most important medical advance of the century for improving women’s health and status. If any one person merits recognition as the father of the birth control pill, it was Goody Pincus.
He was a brilliant scientist. When he took up Margaret Sanger’s challenge in 1950 to develop an oral contraceptive, he had already achieved in vitro fertilization of rabbit eggs, foreshadowing later successes in assisted human reproduction that have enabled tens of thousands of couples to overcome infertility.
The controversy generated by this pioneering work probably cost him tenure at Harvard, prompting his move to Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Screaming headlines about “test-tube babies” and “fatherless rabbits” had elicited anti-science and anti-Semitic attacks. This notoriety may have made Harvard too uncomfortable to keep Pincus on the faculty, but it did not prevent the university in 1936 from citing his work as one of Harvard’s outstanding scientific achievements in its 300-year history.
At Clark, Pincus teamed up with Hudson Hoagland, another scientific pioneer-explorer, to create the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in 1944. Pincus attracted Cambridge-trained physiologist M.C. Chang to the foundation. Chang had demonstrated that progesterone and progesterone-like compounds could suppress ovulation in laboratory animals. This finding made it feasible to search for an oral contraceptive. It was the Pincus-led team that developed the first oral contraceptive, in spite of revisionist claims to the contrary.
In 1960 few scientific leaders were working on the control of fertility, a field that distinguished British reproductive biologist Lord Zuckerman described as a “scientific wasteland.” Pincus was among the few whose distinction and recognition encouraged young scientists to enter the field. Pincus thought enough of my early work on antiestrogens as a potential postfertilization contraceptive to invite me to present a paper at the Laurentian Hormone Conference, endocrinology’s most prestigious annual gathering, in 1963. While preparing to deliver my paper, I dreamed that Pincus — an intense intellectual whose graying moustache and prominent eyebrows gave him an imposing, Einsteinian appearance — was sitting in the front row, fingering his moustache and listening intently to every word, expecting excellence.
I soon learned that the stern taskmaster of my nightmares was really a sweet, considerate man. In the early days of the Population Council, when I moved from the University of Iowa to create the Council’s laboratory at the Rockefeller Institute, I became Goody’s friend. Five years later, the Council offered me the position of biomedical director, and Goody encouraged me to accept.
Although he guided one of the monumental medical advances of the 20th century, Pincus was never awarded the Nobel Prize and was not elected to the National Academy of Sciences until shortly before his death. Before succumbing to a rare blood disease, he published The Control of Fertility. The preface ends: “There is more to discover than we now know. But in the blazing or flickering light of what we do know … willful prejudices fade, and our considered and tested knowledge offers a firm basis for what we can and should do.” My inscribed copy of this book is one of the most cherished in my library.
Sheldon Segal is Distinguished Scientist of the Population Council and former director for population sciences at The Rockefeller Foundation.
For More Information
Gregory Pincus, Father of the Pill
Gregory Pincus, The Control of Fertility (New York: Academic Press, 1965).
_____________, The Eggs of Mammals (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1936).
The Pincus and Chang story of how they linked up with the G.D. Searle Company of Illinois and gynecologist John Rock of Boston to create the first oral contraceptive has been amply reported. David Halberstam’s book The Fifties (New York: Villard Books, 1993; New York: Fawcett, 1994) provides one comprehensive account, and the brilliant and lively article “Annals of Medicine: John Rock’s Error” by Malcolm Gladwell (The New Yorker, March 13, 2000) offers new insights.