Birth control has come a long way since women in ancient Egypt used a mash of dates, acacias and honey to help with contraception.
Only in the early 20th century did researchers come upon a hormone which could inhibit ovulation and thus prevent pregnancy. In 1951 they managed to make an artificial equivalent of progesterone.
A few years later, the contraceptive pill was born: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed its sale beginning May 9, 1960.
On Sunday, the pill will celebrate its 50th anniversary.
“Family planning has been one of the success stories of development,” Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, head of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), said in a statement on Thursday.
“The birth control pill has increased options for women worldwide as they exercise their right to determine the number, timing and spacing of their children. It has also expanded women’s ability to take advantage of opportunities for education and employment, enhancing their contributions to their families, societies and nations,” Ms. Obaid noted.
According to the Time magazine, more than 100 million women around take the tiny pill. Even as the Catholic Church has remained strictly opposed to its use since the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae prohibiting the use of contraception.
A study published in early March with 46,000 participants over a period of 40 years, also played down health worries related to use of the pill. According to this study, the pill does not increase the risk of cancer or cardiovascular problems, or indeed any other diseases. Though the medication does increase the risk of blood clots, which can contribute to heart attacks or strokes.
In the book This Man’s Pill, Chemistry professor Carl Djerassi explained how the breakthrough happened.
Prof. Djerassi, who grew up in Vienna, fled to the United States to escape the Nazis. He was barely 28 when he managed to synthesise norethindrone, a substance with the properties of the hormone progesterone.
The path had been cleared for the creation of the pill, and indeed Prof. Djerassi has since been considered one of the fathers of the innovative method of contraception.
Two other U.S. researchers, Gregory Pincus and John Rock, pursued Prof. Djerassi’s work further and clinically tested their methods from 1956 onwards on women in Puerto Rico. The following year it was approved for use as a menstrual regulator, and thousands of U.S. women took it — officially to treat period problems — before it was formally approved for contraceptive purposes.
Prof. Djerassi himself admitted in his book that there were key precedents 40 years earlier, and he named Ludwig Haberlandt, a former professor of physiology in Innsbruck, the “grandfather of the pill.” The Austrian Haberlandt transplanted into the wombs of female rabbits the ovaries of other, pregnant, animals of the same species.
He saw that the progesterone-heavy implants prevented pregnancy in the animals, despite abundant instances of intercourse.
In a book on the “hormonal sterilisation” of the female body, Haberlandt predicted as early as 1931 the revolution whose 50th anniversary is being celebrating today.